Goku’s rivalry with Vegeta has been running for nearly 30 years. Their first fight began in the Dragon Ball manga in 1989. Since then Vegeta’s obsession with Goku has become one of the greatest conflicts in the franchise. Goku has had more rivals in Dragon Ball that he’s had Super Saiyan forms. But Vegeta has remained Goku’s greatest competition thanks to being his darker opposite. Their personality clash built one of the greatest rivalries in all of anime and manga.
If Goku is the prototypical shōnen hero, Vegeta is the classic example of a shōnen rival. They are both Saiyans, both in love with fighting, and both obsessed with growing stronger. But the prince of all Saiyans is a pile of ego and arrogance while “Kakarot” (Goku) is kind and a bit stupid. The drama comes from how Vegeta reacts to Goku. Despite their bickering, Goku leads Vegeta to be a better man. That journey in Vegeta’s soul is one of the most interesting parts of Dragon Ball Z.
Writing a good rivalry dynamic is a lot like writing a great romance. Rivalries and romances are both unpredictable relationships based on heated emotions. The two sides have to fascinate each other yet remain enemies. They reflect each other in a warped way, making the conflict deeply personal. Your rival is a problem your worldview cannot solve. They represent something inside yourself that you do not want to accept.
Goku by Dragon Ball Z is basically a complete character. Dramatically there wasn’t anything all that interesting left for him to do. That’s the reason why Goku is absent in these sagas more often than he’s around. The real “stars” of Dragon Ball Z are characters that struggle to meet Goku’s example, like his son Gohan, his former rival Piccolo, and yes, Vegeta.
The rivalry between Goku and Vegeta is, therefore, a bit one-sided but no less interesting. They have deep moral and philosophical differences, but a lot of that is a surface issue. Vegeta needs to always be the best and his right as the Saiyan prince should mean he is stronger. But behind all his insecurity, Vegeta’s real problem is that Kakarot is a better person. The relationship drives Vegeta to go from supervillain to antihero to eventually hero.
Vegeta is unique among Dragon Ball characters because he is what Goku could have been. If their places had been switched, Goku would be the space warlord and Vegeta would be the champion of Earth. Goku had the chances Vegeta never had. He grew up in relative peace and was mentored by good men like Grandpa Gohan and Master Roshi. Vegeta, meanwhile, was the prince of the Saiyans, a proud warrior race. The Saiyans worshipped violence and strength, believing them to be the only things that mattered.
If Vegeta ever doubted that strength was everything, his childhood taught him otherwise. He saw his race enslaved by the evil tyrant Frieza. In Frieza’s universe, the weak had no future. Failure meant death. Vegeta was very proud of his Saiyan heritage but he also knew that they lost because they were not strong enough. Even his father, King Vegeta, could do nothing against the overwhelming force of Frieza. Frieza would go on to destroy Planet Vegeta and everything our Vegeta knew.
In Goku’s life, he learned the value of justice and redemption. In Vegeta’s life, he learned that compassion was a weakness and life was cheap. Taking cues from Frieza, Vegeta became a similar cackling supervillain. Where Goku built a growing circle of friends from reformed enemies, Vegeta slaughtered whole planets and treated his partners, Nappa and Raditz, like disposable tools.
Initially, Kakarot is everything Vegeta has been taught to hate. The low-class Saiyan warrior is nothing like the space bullies that Vegeta was raised by. Vegeta sees him as “a clown”. Goku doesn’t mock his enemies with sarcastic quips, and he even lets them live. All of Vegeta’s life experience tells him that Goku should be easy to beat. However, Vegeta is always second-best.
While Vegeta would never admit it out loud, Goku actually inspires him. In Goku, Vegeta sees a life outside Frieza’s twisted universe. Vegeta is “tempted” by the peaceful Earth and lets himself fall in love with Bulma and have a family. But his Saiyan upbringing sees the domestic life as a weakness. It’s a paradox that Vegeta cannot solve, leading to a few relapses into evil.
For Vegeta, this paradox centres itself in his obsession with Goku. Vegeta says he’s angry with Kakarot because he cannot stand being second-best. And yes, a full-blooded Saiyan cannot back away from a challenge. But Vegeta’s cannot sort out the “weakness” Goku inspired in him. The prince does not know how to handle being loved, so he focuses this emotional confusion into rage against his rival.
Some of the best moments in all of Dragon Ball Z come from Vegeta and Goku’s conflict. It drives Vegeta to new highs in strength and new highs in irrational behaviour. Vegeta is proud to reach Super Saiyan in his fight against Android 19, finally matching Goku. But then he has a near nervous breakdown after losing to Android 18. To prove he’s truly the best, Vegeta lets Cell reach the Perfect form.
Finally, all of Vegeta’s conflicts come to a head in the Buu Saga. Vegeta allows himself to turn evil again. This is a direct test of the Vegeta who started the series vs. the Vegeta he had become. It takes nearly dooming the Earth for Vegeta to finally recognize that protecting his loved ones are more important than his stupid pride. For years, Vegeta hunted down a rematch against Kakarot, but his most important battle was his sacrifice against Majin Buu.
Nobody actually stays dead in Dragon Ball though. We have Dragon Balls that fix everything. So Vegeta lives on to grow into Goku’s sidekick come Dragon Ball Super.
Even as a good guy, Vegeta is key to the Dragon Ball we’ve come to love. He has a sarcastic edge that’s unique among the cast. Goku is the pure hero you root for, but Vegeta is the antihero you also root for. Goku will save the world and be a model for everybody and Vegeta will always come in second, but he has the best insults in the series. (“What do we have here? Oh yes: the ultimate tub of lard bucket of bolts!”)
At this point, the Vegeta-Goku rivalry is less a competition and more like a bickering marriage. Goku is the idiot husband and Vegeta is the tsundere wife. Dragon Ball Super has reached a pleasant sort of self-parody with this rivalry. There’s no more drama to be mined, but their personalities still clash well. No new Dragon Ball saga can be complete without both Goku and Vegeta.