The Dragon Ball franchise has enjoyed a return to greatness in recent years thanks to the surprisingly good sequel series Dragon Ball Super and some excellent video games in the form of Dragon Ball Xenoverse and especially Dragon Ball FighterZ. However, for many fans, it all goes back to the 1990s and Dragon Ball Z, which remains arguably one of the best animes ever made (or at the very least, one of the most popular). Though DBZ had some great storytelling and characters, it’s the series’ epic fights that would become its hallmark.
While it’s easy to poke fun at DBZ for its obsession with power levels (there’s a reason “Over 9000?!” has become such a popular meme) and ridiculous filler content that could extend a single fight into half a season’s worth of episodes, the epic clashes featuring Goku, Vegeta, and the rest of the Z-Fighters were often wondrous to behold thanks to the inventive action and character drama behind them. With a staggering 291 episodes, there are almost too many battles in Dragon Ball Z to count but if we had to narrow the series down to its 15 greatest bouts, these would be it.
NOTE: In the interest of simplicity, we’ve decided to just include battles from the main series. In other words, we’re just pulling from the beginning of the Saiyan Saga to the end of the Majin Buu Saga, so you won’t find any battles from the Dragon Ball Z movies on here (and to be honest, you could probably do a whole list just based on those). That also means you won’t find any mention of Broly here but if we were including the movies, you can bet that his incredible fight with Goku, Vegeta, Piccolo, Gohan, and Future Trunks from The Legendary Super Saiyan would rank in the top 5, easy. Okay, that all make sense? Then let’s proceed!
15. Future Trunks VS. Mecha Frieza & King Cold (Trunks Saga)
Escalation is a common theme throughout Dragon Ball Z, as every fighter (especially the Saiyans) continually achieve new levels of power that completely dwarf what came previously. This led to a number of instances where certain characters who once seemed nigh-unstoppable ended up looking laughably outmatched when they ran up against a more powerful force. Perhaps the most satisfying example of this is Mecha Frieza and his father King Cold’s absolute thrashing at the hands of Trunks, a mysterious warrior from the future who arrives out of nowhere to completely decimate the pair shortly after their arrival on Earth.
It’s easy to forget that at the time, Frieza was the most powerful villain the series had introduced and we had just watched Goku struggle mightily to defeat him. Suddenly, here’s a new character who not only could turn Super Saiyan (something that only Goku had proven capable of doing up to this point) but who was more powerful than Goku, as Trunks dispatches Frieza and King Cold without breaking a sweat. Sure, the fight is over pretty quickly, but it gets points for the image of Trunks slicing Frieza in half with his sword, which is easily one of the coolest moments in all of Dragon Ball Z.
14. Super Saiyan 3 Goku VS. Fat Buu (Majin Buu Saga)
This fight mostly exists to give a true indication of just how far Goku’s power had increased in his time away from Earth and while the fight itself certainly doesn’t rank as one of DBZ’s most engaging, the scene is still a pivotal moment in the Majin Buu Saga. By this point in the series, Super Saiyan advances were admittedly getting a bit ridiculous, but Goku’s Super Saiyan 3 transformation scores points for just how dramatically it changes his appearance. It also confirms that Goku had been holding back during his fight with Majin Vegeta, which does undermine the gravitas of that moment a bit.
That being said, it’s soon revealed why Goku didn’t transform to his most powerful level sooner, as doing so requires too much energy and decreases the amount of time Goku can stay on Earth (he’s still technically dead at this time, if you’ll recall). The whole sequence is rather bittersweet, as even though Goku is clearly more powerful than Buu and likely could have defeated him eventually if he had enough time, the fact that Buu emerges from the fight unscathed hinted at the fact that it would take much more than a new Super Saiyan transformation to defeat this foe.
Also, did anyone else notice the part where Goku throws Buu through an entire building, causing it to collapse? That had to have killed some civilians, no?
13. Vegeta, Krillin, and Gohan VS. Recoome (Namek Saga)
Even though he’s practically a nameless grunt in the grand scheme of Dragon Ball Z villains, the Ginyu Force’s Recoome was one of the most terrifying foes the Z-Fighters went up against because for a specific moment in time, he looked absolutely unstoppable. It was like Nappa all over again, with Gohan and Krillin teaming up with Vegeta to try and take the red-headed oaf down. Seeing Vegeta put aside his animosity for Gohan and Krillin in order to join forces was a huge moment for the Saiyan Prince and one that arguably started him on his long and winding path to redemption, but it also underscored just how unmatched the good guys were at this point.
Having already easily dispatched Guido, another member of the Ginyu Force, the stage was set for Vegeta to make quick work of Recoome. However, despite gaining the upper hand early on, Recoome proves to be too much for the Saiyan, leading to Krillin and Gohan having to step in to save Vegeta’s life. Even with three against one, Recoome is able to handily defeat them all, going so far as to break Gohan’s neck and spine in the process, which is still a hard thing to watch given how young Gohan was. If not for Goku’s timely arrival, Vegeta, Krillin, and Gohan all would have surely died by Recoome’s hand.
12. Future Trunks VS. Android 17, 18, And Imperfect Cell (Cell Games Saga)
It’s somewhat disappointing that Future Trunks becomes less relevant as Goku, Vegeta, and Gohan all eventually outclass him in terms of power during the Cell Sagas, but the hero from the future gets one last hurrah before his departure from the series. As you may recall, Trunks came from a brutal future timeline in which all of the Z-Fighters but himself died at the hands of Androids 17 and 18, who spend their days hunting down Earth’s dwindling population.
Trunks eventually returns to his timeline with a whole new set of powers and wastes no time avenging his fallen friends and family, leading to one of the most satisfying moments of catharsis in Dragon Ball Z. Trunks makes quick work of his longtime foes, making sure to remind them of the pain and suffering they’ve caused him and all the people of Earth. When Trunks yells “This is for Gohan!” and disintegrates Android 18 in a single blast, you can feel every bit of pain in Trunk’s voice and it’s hard not to stand up and cheer. After disposing of the Androids, Trunks takes care of Cell in his imperfect form in a battle that is a bit more bombastic, but doesn’t pack the same emotional punch.
11. Gohan VS. Super Buu (Fusion Saga)
The Buu Saga as a whole was a disappointing time for Gohan fans. Since becoming the most powerful Z-Fighter near the end of the Cell Games Saga, Gohan had let his training regimen slide in favor of hitting the books and becoming a good student like his mother always wanted. Unfortunately, this left Gohan unprepared for the powerful foes that would await him and his allies in the lead-up to Majin Buu’s introduction, particularly Dabura, whom Gohan should have easily defeated had he kept up with his training.
Fortunately, while the Buu Saga as a whole puts a greater emphasis on Goku and Vegeta, Gohan gets one last chance to shine thanks to the Old Kai unlocking his true potential. Gohan is then able to confront and outright dominate Super Buu in combat, leading to a totally one-sided battle in which the half-Saiyan exudes cool confidence. If it wasn’t for Super Buu finding a way to absorb Gotenks and becoming too powerful to handle, Gohan could have destroyed Buu all by himself instead of getting himself eaten (though to be fair, pretty much everyone got eaten by Buu at one point or another).
10. Goku VS. Perfect Cell (Cell Games Saga)
This might be one of the best teases in all of Dragon Ball Z, as Goku’s battle with Cell during the villain’s martial arts tournament is presented as the big final battle of the Cell Saga. After all, Goku is the main protagonist of the series and had sat on the sidelines for much of the preceding season on account of his heart condition, but now he was freshly trained and ready to go. The fight between Goku and Cell is DBZ at its best, with each character throwing everything they have at one another and matching each other blow-for-blow.
Eventually, Goku lands what would appear to be a killing blow by powering up a Kamehameha attack capable of destroying the Earth, then teleporting directly in front of Cell to unleash the full blast right in the villain’s stupid face. Unfortunately, Cell is able to regenerate, thus leading Goku to the conclusion that only his son Gohan has the power to defeat Cell and in a shocking twist, forfeits the match. While some may have been disappointed by Goku’s failure to defeat Cell, it was also a defining moment for the series as it represented a true passing of the torch from Goku to the next generation; in this case, his son, whom he recognized had surpassed himself in power.
9. Android 16 VS. Imperfect Cell (Imperfect Cell Saga)
One of the downsides of the Super Saiyans becoming the most powerful characters post-Frieza Saga is that the rest of the Z-Fighters, including Tien, Yamcha, Krillin, and even Piccolo became increasingly outclassed and less of a factor in major battles. Every so often though, a non-Saiyan got to have a big moment, especially in the Cell Saga where the aforementioned characters all got to participate in one way or another in Earth’s defense. However, no one made as big an impact as Android 16, the kind-hearted pacifist who set aside his apathy in order to do battle with Cell, who posed a threat to all organic life.
What’s even more surprising is that Android 16 didn’t just put up a good fight against Cell; he absolutely dominated him, to the point where he literally started ripping his foe limb from limb. As good as Android 16 is, there’s no way Akira Toriyama and his writing team were going to allow a minor character to win the day, so it’s hardly surprising when 16’s hard fought victory is undone by Android 17’s refusal to retreat and subsequent absorption into Cell’s body. At the very least, Android 16 paves the way for Gohan, another strong but thoughtful type who abhors fighting, to eventually defeat Cell once and for all.
8. The Z-Fighters VS. Nappa (Vegeta Saga)
The early episodes of Dragon Ball Z signaled a shift in storytelling from the original Dragon Ball, in that the people of Earth couldn’t just rely on Goku to save them. This was made explicitly clear when Goku is killed off battling his brother Radditz in the very first fight of the series, leaving the rest of the Z-Fighters to prepare for the arrival of two even more powerful foes. Unfortunately, nothing could have prepared them for Vegeta and Nappa, who proved more than they could handle.
Nappa himself may be a low-level threat in the grand scheme of DBZ but when he arrogantly elected to take on Piccolo, Gohan, Krillin, Tien, and Chiaotzu by himself, he proved to be the definition of an immovable object, killing Chiaotzu, Tien, and Piccolo, the latter of whom nobly sacrifices himself to save Gohan. Talk about establishing that Dragon Ball Z would be a much more brutal affair than its predecessor!
7. Majin Vegeta VS. Buu (Majin Buu Saga)
Besides Piccolo perhaps, no other character develops as much as Vegeta over the course of Dragon Ball Z. By the time Majin Buu arrived, the Saiyan Prince had already evolved from cruel villain to a protector of Earth. However, Vegeta continued to carry a massive chip on his shoulder and although he was a trusted ally of the Z-Fighters, he stopped short of being anyone’s friend. Much of this animosity was driven by Vegeta’s unending desire to be more powerful than Goku, a Saiyan of lesser birth who somehow always found a way to best him.
This rivalry eventually comes to a head in a massive fight (more on that later) that leads to the arrival of Majin Buu, a foe that Vegeta takes delight in challenging but who proves too much for the prideful Saiyan to handle. Ashamed of himself for allowing Buu to be awakened, Vegeta boldly sacrifices himself in order to save his wife, son, and the rest of Earth’s inhabitants (including Goku!). It’s a surprisingly emotional act of selflessness from a character known for only ever putting himself first and leads to the heart-wrenching visual of Vegeta blowing himself up in order to defeat his opponent (to no avail).
6. Vegito VS. Super Buu (Fusion Saga)
After absorbing Gohan (plus Gotenks, Piccolo, etc.), Buu was more than a match for either Goku or Vegeta, who by that point were the only two fighters left with any hope of defeating the pink monstrosity. Fortunately, Goku had one last trick up his sleeve in the form of Potarra Earrings, which would enable himself and Vegeta to fuse together into Vegito, the most powerful character in all of Dragon Ball Z.
This leads to perhaps the most outright ridiculous (in the best possible way) fight in the series, with Vegito wiping the floor with Super Buu despite the latter attempting a dimension-shattering attack and even turning his opponent into a coffee-flavored jawbreaker at one point. Even in candy form, Vegito is able to best Buu in combat and were it not for the fact that killing Buu would have also killed off their friends and family trapped inside, the Goku-Vegeta fusion could have defeated Buu once and for all with ease.
5. Goku and Vegeta VS. Kid Buu (Kid Buu Saga)
The big final fight of the series loses some points for Kid Buu being a rather uninteresting villain, preferring to let actions make up for his lack of eloquent speeches, but definitely cracks the top 5 for seeing Goku and Vegeta uniting to save the universe. The fight itself is a long and brutal one, with both Goku and Vegeta thoroughly trounced by the much stronger Buu, but that all pales in comparison to the character work at play here. Here we see the moment when Vegeta truly sets aside his hatred for Goku and embrace his humanity, as he convinces Goku to use a Spirit Bomb attack against Buu and does everything in his power to make sure it succeeds.
Speaking of Spirit Bombs, this fight is also notable for finally seeing the oft-mocked attack used successfully, with the people of Earth contributing their energy to the massive attack. Overall, while there are better fights in Dragon Ball Z, seeing the last two pure-blooded Saiyans — once bitter enemies turned friends — working together to save the universe is a satisfying way to see the series end off.
4. Goku VS. Majin Vegeta (Babidi Saga)
While Vegeta eventually finds redemption by the end of Dragon Ball Z, he goes through hell and back to get there. By the time the Buu Sagas rolled around, it looked like Vegeta had turned over a new leaf: he had a family now and with Goku out of his reach in Other World, he didn’t have to constantly measure himself up to his rival. However, it doesn’t take long for Vegeta to reveal his true colors, as he confesses to Goku after being taken by the wizard Babidi and turned into Majin Vegeta that he turned himself over willingly in an effort to gain enough power to finally defeat his fellow Saiyan.
After he unflinchingly kills a crowd of innocent people, Vegeta leaves Goku with no choice but to accept his rival’s challenge and what follows is arguably one of the most brutal, emotional fights in all of Dragon Ball Z, as Vegeta finally lets his rage get the better of him and savagely attacks Goku, who pleads for the Saiyan Prince to stop and remember his humanity. In the end, Vegeta is able to take advantage of Goku’s trusting nature to land a cheap shot against him and emerge victorious, though of course the results are later undermined by the revelation that Goku could have gone Super Saiyan 3 at any point and won.
3. Goku VS. Frieza (Frieza Saga)
Even though it continued on for nearly 200 more episodes, Dragon Ball Z could have called it quits after this fight and the series would have still wrapped up with a satisfying conclusion. That is because there is a sense of finality hanging over the entirety of Goku’s fight against Frieza and not just because an entire planet is destroyed in the process.
The Super Saiyan legend finally becomes a reality thanks to Goku’s incredible transformation and even though he never embraced his birthright, there’s poetic justice in Goku being the one to finally overpower the might Frieza, aka the architect of the Saiyan race’s destruction. Sure, the whole “Planet Namek exploding in five minutes” is complete lunacy, seeing as how Goku and Frieza’s fight is one of the longest, most drawn-out affairs in the series, but this one’s still a classic.
2. Gohan VS. Cell (Cell Games Saga)
This fight likely ranks near the top for many DBZ fans, as it’s not only a long and intense battle against one of the greatest villains in the series, but finally sees Gohan stop holding back and allow his true powers to be unleashed. Up until his battle with Cell, Gohan’s fighting style often amounted to being pushed to anger, unleashing an explosive surge of power, and then letting Goku or another fighter finish the job. Indeed, Gohan begins the fight against Cell reluctant to do battle, as he not only dislikes fighting but is afraid of what he might do if his true power is unlocked. It’s this side of Gohan that Cell exploits, much to his own folly, as he goads the young half-Saiyan into unleashing his power by brutally attacking his friends and killing the good-hearted Android 16 right in front of him.
It’s all too much for Gohan, who subsequently becomes the first person to transform into a Super Saiyan 2 and gets the best of Cell, even toying with the villain. This is a mistake that winds up costing Gohan dearly, as Cell is able to take advantage of his opponent’s lapse in judgement to power up even more. The fight itself is much too long to detail here but the whole thing culminates in perhaps the most intense Kamehameha attack in all of DBZ, as Gohan is just able to defeat Cell with the help of his deceased father and the other Z-fighters. There is an argument to be made that Dragon Ball Z peaked with this epic clash, but only one battle could take the top spot …
1. Goku VS. Vegeta (Vegeta Saga)
Even though this fight came long before Super Saiyans reigned supreme, Goku and Vegeta’s first bout ranks as the greatest Saiyan vs. Saiyan match in all of Dragon Ball Z. There is a purity to this fight that is sadly missing in later seasons of the show, when constant transformations and power levels gone rampant undermined the dramatic tension that defined the very best DBZ conflicts. Having already gotten past his brother Radditz and Nappa, Goku had only to defeat Vegeta in order to save the Earth from the Saiyan threat. Unfortunately, Vegeta was far more powerful than Radditz or Nappa and right from the start, Goku had a difficult challenge on his hands (at this point in the series, death would have been final for Goku).
Even though Vegeta was clearly the superior combatant at this point in the series, Goku more than holds his own with an array of cool attacks. In fact, this entire battle is defined by the variety of attacks used by both Goku and Vegeta, and we’d see some series mainstays used for the first time here, such as the Spirit Bomb and Galick Gun. Plus, this is the only time in the entire series we’d get to see a Saiyan transform into their giant ape form in combat, which puts this fight just over the edge for us as the best of Dragon Ball Z.
Did we miss any important battles? Would you have picked a different number one (or even top 5)? Let us know in the comments!