There’s a reason Dragon Ball Z is one of the most popular anime on the planet, and it’s got nothing to do with Goku’s endless trip down Snake Way, or Gohan’s adventures in high school. It’s because of the moments that make all those hours of filler worthwhile. Moments that deliver drama as exciting as anything you’re ever likely to see on television, and that still pull on the heartstrings of fully grown adults.
Any instance of a character transforming, fusing, or in any way powering up, will not be up for consideration. We’re focusing on character development and high drama, and while those criteria absolutely factor into some of the Super Saiyan transformations in the series, they already have their own list. Full battle sequences are also excluded (again, they have their own list, and we’re looking more specifically at singular moments).
One more time: no transformations. No extended fights. Otherwise, here the 15 Greatest Moments in Dragon Ball Z.
15 “It’s Over 9000!”
“It’s over 9000!” is many people’s introduction to Dragon Ball Z, and in some cases, the only thing they know about the series. It actually turns out that Vegeta’s most famous line was completely mistranslated by the Ocean dub, but it had already caught on so quickly that Funimation were happy to run with the mistake, and as a result, the Prince of all Saiyans has become a staple of internet culture.
But the line was a pretty big deal even before memes existed. The brief display of shock from Vegeta, who had so far sat through the entire Saiyan Saga with a smirk on his face, is all you need for Goku’s endless training on King Kai’s planet to finally pay off. It also represents the tipping point for first-time watchers, as the hint at Goku’s new power keeps your attention for the remainder of the arc, and arguably the rest of the series.
14 Gohan Knocks Back Cell’s Kamehameha
At this point in the Cell Saga, we had already seen Super Saiyan 2 Gohan make quick work of the Cell Juniors, and even outmatch Cell in hand-to-hand, but the greatest indication of just what Cell is up against comes when the 11-year-old deflects a full-power Kamehameha from close range.
It’s not enough for Gohan to overpower Cell, though – he has to completely humiliate him. Rather than launch a Kamehameha right back at Cell, Gohan stands and watches as the massive death beam rockets toward him, only reacting at the very last second.
Even Goku, who had put so much faith in Gohan, isn’t sure exactly what he is capable of, but the fact that Gohan puts in so little effort not only proves the full realization of his hidden power, but that it reaches further than anyone could have predicted. It’s the turning point in the Cell Games, and strangely enough – Gohan’s first ever on-screen Kamehameha.
13 Frieza Sliced
To this day, Goku’s battle with Frieza remains the longest in anime history, but it comes to a swift end, as Frieza is sliced in two by his own discs. Goku tricks Frieza into dodging his own Death Saucers, and follows up with a series of Super Saiyan slaps. As Goku tries to warn Frieza (who was presumably slapped so hard that he forgot about his attack) of the oncoming saucers, Frieza realizes too late that Goku is actually sincere in his offer to help.
Not only does Frieza bring it upon himself, both figuratively (in the sense that actions have consequences) and literally, but his refusal to believe Goku’s advice speaks volumes to Frieza’s personality. His complete inability to understand empathy, kindness, or any kind of concern for others, is his ultimate undoing. It’s a completely unexpected moment under the circumstances, but disregarding his return in the Android Saga (and Resurrection ‘F’), this was such a fitting way for Frieza to go out.
12 Trunks Frees The Future
You could make a strong case for any number of Future Trunks' moments to be included here. His defeat of Frieza and the reveal of his parents are certainly contenders, and both occur in just his first appearance, but Trunks’ most satisfying moment has to be when he travels back to his own timeline to avenges those he lost.
Especially after The History of Trunks, which brutally depicts the harsh reality of a world invaded by androids, and seeing Future Gohan’s unceremonious death at the hands of 17 and 18, Trunks’ revenge is all the more impactful. We have seen first-hand what he’s lost, and what he’s fighting for, to the point that it’s a proud moment when the androids are finally beaten, and Trunks follows it up by dealing Cell a similar hand.
It almost lets us believe that Trunks’ world would be allowed to rebuild, before Dragon Ball Super came along and heaped even more trouble on the future timeline.
11 Vegeta’s Final Words
Goku’s decision to spare Vegeta at the end of the Saiyan Saga initially brought out no change in Vegeta, who straight-up murdered just about everything that stood before him after landing on Namek. But when the Saiyan Prince fails miserably in challenging Frieza, we are introduced to the side of Vegeta that Goku saw all along.
On the brink of death, Vegeta finally reveals what life under Frieza’s rule had turned him into. The Saiyans were always a warrior race, but Frieza had never given Vegeta the chance to be anything else. Vegeta’s dying wish, scored beautifully in whichever version you happen to be watching, is for Frieza to die at a Saiyan’s hand.
The speech humanizes Vegeta for the first time in the series. Not only is he dying, he uses his final words to open up to Goku, the only surviving Saiyan, actually begging him to avenge the race he was destined to rule.
10 Goten Meets Goku For The First Time
Imagine growing up, only hearing stories about your father. That he was the best fighter to ever have lived, and that he died for the planet he loved. But your best friend also has a father. A father who’s still alive, and takes every opportunity to claim that he, in fact, is the greatest warrior in all the universe.
A six-year-old Goten, facing issues no child should have to, doesn’t know who or what to believe. But when he gets a chance to meet his older doppelganger, it doesn’t matter how strong he is, or how many bad guys he beat up – all that matters is that he has a father.
It’s about as deep as Dragon Ball Z has ever been, and a moment that often goes overlooked in the midst of the Buu Saga madness, but it’s a rare human moment in a series that left regular human standards behind a long time ago.
Tien Shinhan was somewhat of an afterthought by the time Dragon Ball became Dragon Ball Z, but in his last meaningful contribution to the series (at least before Dragon Ball Super), he reminds us all why he played such an important role in the original series.
Already frustrated at being left behind as Piccolo took on Android 17, Tien’s anger boils over when Cell enters the picture, easily beating Piccolo and absorbing 17. As the last roadblock between Semi-Perfect Cell and Android 18, Tien catches up with Cell, firing off continuous Tri-beams in an attempt to buy 18 the time she needs to escape.
Knowing full well that even if he manages to hold Cell off, the massive release of energy will most likely result in his death, Tien’s actions are just as heroic as anything the Z Fighters did in the entire Cell Saga. It doesn’t get the credit it deserves simply because Tien is a minor character at this point, but if it had been Goku up there, it’s a Dragon Ball Z moment that would make anyone’s list.
8 “What Are You Gawking At?”
In the single finest example of Vegeta’s infinite stubbornness, the Prince of all Saiyans is stuck in the awkward situation of defending his lower-class compatriot from Kid Buu, as Goku tries to conserve enough energy to maintain Super Saiyan 3.
Vegeta is severely outmatched in all areas, and after suffering the beating of a lifetime, he winds up (as Dragon Ball characters tend to) passed out in a crater. At least, that’s what Buu thinks. Turning to face an unprepared Goku and cackling maniacally, Buu’s face quickly falls as a mortally wounded Vegeta somehow crawls from his hole in the ground.
Although Vegeta does transform into a Super Saiyan here, it’s the moment just before the transformation that makes the list. It’s the fear in Buu’s eyes as Vegeta lands a couple of prize insults. Vegeta has fallen several levels behind Goku at this point, but by instilling that kind of terror in a being of pure evil, even for just a second, the Saiyan Prince truly lives up to his name.
7 Kamehameha vs. Galick Gun
The original fight between Goku and Vegeta, ranked consistently as one of the best in all of anime, reaches its peak when the pair face off in an epic battle of beams. At this point the two most powerful attacks in the franchise, the Kamehameha and Galick Gun showdown is the first in a long line of iconic beam struggles.
Everything about it, from the colorful visuals right down to the extended screaming from those involved, set the stage from which Dragon Ball Z was built, bridging the gap between itself and Dragon Ball with a massive shift in the power scale.
Looking back through their legendary rivalry, it also acts as a metaphor for what Goku and Vegeta’s relationship would eventually become. Though it’s even in the early stages, Goku, as he so often does, surpasses his physical limits. Vegeta is unable to react, and is left in the dust as Goku moves swiftly onto the next level.
6 Piccolo Dies For Gohan
While Vegeta is thought of as Dragon Ball’s most infamous anti-hero, and rightfully so, it’s easy to forget that Piccolo once traveled a similar road to redemption. Unlike Vegeta, whose development is wrung out through the entire series until there’s nothing left, Piccolo’s conversion from dark side to light is wrapped up in a neat little bow midway through the Saiyan Saga.
After kidnapping and stalking Gohan (let’s call it what it is), Piccolo begins a transformation that aligns perfectly with his feelings for the son of his arch nemesis. By watching Gohan, Piccolo learns (subconsciously at this point) the values of friendship and kindness.
Fast-forward to Nappa’s assault on the Z Fighters, and to everyone’s surprise, including his own, Piccolo throws himself in front of a deadly energy blast meant for Gohan. His sacrifice takes on another layer of depth when you realize that Piccolo dies not only to protect Gohan, but to repay him for showing him another way.
5 Final Flash
Every version of Dragon Ball Z has its merits, but the Funimation dub of Vegeta’s Final Flash on Cell turns the scene into a masterpiece. Having just transformed into Perfect Cell, the bio-android offers Vegeta one chance to hit him with everything he’s got. Vegeta, after initially wasting his free shot and being launched into the ocean, rises from the water to prepare a Final Flash that takes almost five minutes to charge.
But in this case, the longer the better. As Vegeta’s whole body pulsates and several lightning bolts emit from his energy to create cracks in the ground, the striking visuals work with Bruce Falconer’s score to create a scene filled with enough tension to last a whole episode.
Where Vegeta would later instil fear in Kid Buu, he also exposes Cell’s vulnerability to the power of an Ascended Saiyan for the first time. Even if Cell does regenerate almost immediately after the event, the genuine regret in his face as he stares down Vegeta’s blast serves as a warning to never take Vegeta lightly.
4 Vegeta’s Sacrifice
Vegeta’s sacrifice to save the planet he had planned to destroy is the ultimate pay off to one of the longest-running redemption arcs in modern fiction. Despite his Majin power-up, Vegeta finds himself in the now familiar position of being outmatched by his opponent, but with more than his own humiliation on the line, the Saiyan Prince comes to understand right from wrong.
What’s more impressive is that he is fighting Babidi’s control at the time, and so at a point in the series, when Vegeta should have been at his most dangerous, the family he had neglected since the Android Saga finally brings out the best in him.
The only downfall to this moment, and ultimately the reason it doesn’t make the top three, is that it essentially counts for nothing. Vegeta’s explosion not only fails to kill Majin Buu, but he is actually brought back to life a few episodes later. It’s not that we wanted Vegeta out of the picture, but what a way it would have been to go out, and to resurrect him so shortly afterwards is a cheap narrative pull.
3 Father/Son Kamehameha
Topping the battle of the beams is Gohan’s final effort to defeat Cell. Lacking both confidence and the use of his left arm following Cell’s return, Gohan is ready to give up, but Goku appears as the Ghost of Protecting the Earth Past to talk him through it. As Goku telepathically encourages Gohan to fire a mighty one-armed Kamehameha wave, Goku himself appears in spirit form, as the torch is (temporarily) passed from father to son.
As Vegeta delivers Cell a distracting blow, Gohan’s outline approaches Cell through the mist of energy in arguably the most visually impressive shot of the series, ending the most intense beam struggle the franchise has ever produced.
It’s Dragon Ball Z action at its biggest and best, but even from Other World, Goku puts the finishing touches on a character arc a long time in the making. Seeing Gohan live up to his potential is one thing, but to live up to his father is something else entirely.
2 A Whole New Gohan
After that victory, Gohan spends the next seven years slacking, and we have to go through the motions of his story all over again. On the plus side, this was the opportunity to deliver whatthe Cell Saga never did. At the end of Cell Games, Gohan had ascended, Goku was dead, and the Earth was safe. The one thing that was missing was Gohan’s willingness to accept his new role – to harness his Saiyan side and truly live up to Goku.
As Gohan arrives on Earth to face Super Buu, wearing his father’s gi, he walks right up to Buu with a smile on his face, and delivers the greatest single line in Dragon Ball Z history: “Fight you? No, I wanna kill you.” This version of Gohan, the strongest a single character had ever been in Dragon Ball, has gone by many names across the fandom, but Ultimate Gohan seems to be most fitting. This is Gohan with all the boxes ticked; at his full potential, and radiating confidence. The Gohan we were promised from the very beginning.
1 Vegeta’s Respect
After his sacrifice proved ineffective, Vegeta actually delivers a meaningful and long-lasting moment that sums up his entire Dragon Ball journey up until this point, as he watches Goku at Super Saiyan 3 face off against Kid Buu for the final time.
With Gohan’s rise to Earth’s protector also having fizzled out, Vegeta’s acceptance was the only character story left to tell. After spending so much time, and training so hard, trying to escape Goku’s shadow, Vegeta comes to the conclusion that he has been surpassed. Although we obviously knew this already, Vegeta’s infinite pride had left him blind to the fact for so long, and to finally admit it shows a monumental shift in his character.
Vegeta’s respect was a long time in the making, but as we relive his relationship with Goku from Vegeta’s point of view, you realize that every beat in their rivalry has been leading to this moment.
“You’re better than me, Kakarot. You are the best.” The Buu Saga isn’t everyone’s favorite, but those nine words alone are enough to make both Vegeta’s prolonged redemption arc and the final saga in the series entirely worth it.
Leave your favorite Dragon Ball Z moments in the comments! First one to point out that there are no transformations on this list wins a prize!