The imaginative creativity of the action sequences in many fighting centric anime titles has always been one of the top appeals of anime to fans around the world. They can be strategic, wild, intricate, brutal, technical and exciting, and sometimes, share all those qualities at the same time. A good fraction of the fights portrayed in anime take it to extremes that are hard to top. While Raul Julia as Bison in the 1994 Street Fighter movie tried to preach about the purity of unarmed combat, he even said using fireballs still counted as pure hand-to-hand so for today’s list, we will cover fights that are hand-to-hand oriented but with a bit of spice here and there.
10. Saitama vs. Genos from One Punch Man
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: Oct 5, 2015 – Dec 21, 2015
Kicking off this list is Saitama vs. Genos from the inaugural season of One Punch Man. We can’t exactly call this a fight, but more of an intense sparring match. Despite Genos being classified as a higher class hero than Saitama, Saitama is unarguably the strongest hero in the world since he lives up to the title of this anime by being able to take out an enemy in a single punch. Despite Genos having an enhanced body with the best cybernetic technology money can buy, he challenges Saitama to a friendly spar so he can get a better understanding of him. However, he puts that aside and puts everything he has into the fight. Genos throws out almost everything you can think of including the kitchen sink and he can’t do anything to Saitama.
Saitama, on the other hand, decides to stay on the defensive and keeps the mindset that the fight is only a spar. Genos can’t land a single blow on Saitama because he can’t keep up with his speed. Saitama wins the fight without landing a single punch (only a finger poke) and he stops his only punch before it could land on Genos’ face. Despite stopping before impact, the wind effects from the force of Saitama’s punch still causes destructive damage to the surrounding rock formations. The fight shows just how legit Saitama is despite how ridiculous he looks and that he is capable of showing restraint when he needs to. To an outsider like Genos, he thinks there is something special about Saitama when in the end, he worked his body to the max to get to where he is and for some reason, he can’t accept that.
9. Rock Lee vs. Gaara from Naruto
- Episodes: 220
- Aired: Oct 3, 2002 – Feb 8, 2007
While Naruto isn’t officially a tournament-oriented anime, the fight between Rock Lee and Gaara is created under such circumstances. The appeal to this fight is that you see what both of these unassuming fighters are truly capable of. Prior to this fight, we saw Rock Lee make easy work of Naruto and Sasuke, and Gaara used his sand coffin to kill a guy during the second phase of the Chunin exam. If you’re familiar with the cliché of when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, you pretty much get this fight. As Naruto fans already know, Lee is incapable of using non-physical forms of Ninjitsu so he makes it up with pure hand-to-hand combat skills, which he built up with through hard training.
With Gaara, viewers learn that he is constantly protected by sand as a form of armor and that he can take pain despite how much of a hard hitter Lee is. As you see Lee throwing every punch and kick, the animation does an excellent job of using angles, panning, framing, and frame rates to showcase everything going on. With Hollywood abusing shaky cam, dark lighting, and close-ups in action scenes, they could learn how to make fight scenes by referencing this fight. What makes this fight excellent is that it teaches viewers you should never judge people based on their appearance.
While Lee (and his master, Guy) comes across as silly based on his design, he can kick major ass and he gave Gaara a run for his money and pushed his body to the limits in order to do so. But with Gaara having a divine beast sealed within him, you got all the power to come out on top in the end.
8. Kenichi Shirahama vs. Ryuto Asamiya from Shijou Saikyou no Deshi Kenichi (Kenichi: The Mightiest Disciple)
- Episodes: 50
- Aired: Oct 7, 2006 – Sept 30, 2007
In the conclusion to this martial arts series, Kenichi finally faces Odin, the top dog of Ragnarok, a gang of martial artists who take the names of gods from Norse mythology. It turns out that Odin is Ryuto, Kenichi’s childhood friend who hates Kenichi from an incident during their childhood. Between then and now, both Kenichi and Ryuto have become and progressed as disciples in old school mixed martial arts. Despite a large majority of fighting anime tending to have gimmicks such as fireballs and other tricks that defy the laws of gravity, Kenichi is one of those animes that is more grounded in reality. If there are some gimmicks such as Ryuto’s seikuuken, the anime finds a way to presentably make it realistic by saying it’s nothing more than a combatant’s sphere of defense and if anything, Floyd Mayweather essentially has it as well once you understand its foundational principles.
After facing difficulty landing a strike on Ryuto by relying on his own original skills, Kenichi gains the upper hand when he imitates the fighting styles of his masters at the Ryozanpaku Dojo by also assuming their personas. Kenichi switches between Muay Thai, Karate, Ninjutsu, Kung Fu, and Aikijujutsu to psyche out Ryuto and beat him. In the end, this fight shows that all you have to do is rely on the basics of real-life martial arts to show that anime can have exciting fights.
7. Deku vs. Todoroki from Boku no Hero Academia 2nd Season (My Hero Academia 2)
- Episodes: 25
- Aired: Apr 1, 2017 – Sept 30, 2017
Just like Rock Lee vs. Gaara, this fight is portrayed in a tournament setting. Deku still has yet to know how to control One For All, his inherited quirk from All Might with little to no severe injury to himself. As for Todoroki, who has two quirks controlling fire and ice from his parents, chooses to use his ice powers to spite his father. Despite their limitations based on their choices and inexperiences, they still give their respective 100% efforts.
Due to Deku’s personal limitations in his experience and training, he tends to rely more on analyzing his opponent and making a game plan for them that makes or breaks them. Todoroki just uses his range by relying on his ice powers to the max but Deku uses his quirk by snapping his fingers to make a wind effect to stop the ice from coming to him but severely destroying his right arm in the process. But when Deku forces to get the fight within striking distance, he manages to gain the advantage. Due to Deku’s overwhelming strength, Todoroki finally breaks his personal seal using the power of fire resulting in an intense explosion blasting Deku out of the ring to gain a victory.
Despite this fight showing the inexperience and lack of proper training of these two combatants in using their quirks, it is still an entertaining fight because they still give it their all and demonstrate respect for each other’s true potential. In the end, viewers know that both the winner and loser will grow from this fight and that this series and the journey of these two has yet to truly begin.
6. Kougami vs. Makishima from Psycho-Pass
- Episodes: 22
- Aired: Oct 12, 2012 – Mar 22, 2013
In addition to Kenichi, the first round between Kougami and Makishima is another great example on how fights in anime don’t have to be reliant on superpower gimmicks, but that pure hand-to-hand combat can be just as exciting. A lot of the fight is within striking distance and shows how they are expert martial artists. Kougami tends to go on the offensive with compact punches (and each punch is thrown with bad intentions), but Makishima shows he’s an expert grappler by countering Kougami’s punches with throws, takedowns, and joint locks.
While it isn’t exactly like an MMA fight, this does demonstrate certain aspects that do resemble the sport such as how grappling can neutralize striking, but a street fight requires faster timing as opposed to a round system seen in MMA where fighters have the time to utilize a game plan, but in a street fight, the game plan is the win and survive. After that, they resume in a knife fight like it’s West Side Stories and it also demonstrates how proper footwork, timing, and technique are necessary for that kind of situation.
5. The Tournament of Power from Dragon Ball Super
- Episodes: 131
- Aired: Jul 5, 2015 – Mar 28, 2018
If there is going to be any royal rumble type of fight on this list, it certainly has to be the Tournament of Power from Dragon Ball Super. At the suggestion of Goku, the two Zenou’s decide to hold a tournament for a select number of universes to participate in for a fight of survival. Each of the participating 8 universes will have 10 members and if all members of a respective universe are eliminated (either from getting knocked from the ring or getting knocked out), they will face extinction.
While this is a fight for survival, this royal rumble proves that fights for survival don’t always equate to always having to be a battle over good vs. evil. In this instance, it is a group of people who are good and evil who are fighting others that contain members that are good and evil. This fight provides an extreme version of a Darwinian model on what one needs to do in order to survive. Some fight with honor, and others fight dirty but still within the rules. For example, Frieza pretends to cooperate with Frost only to say he lied like the late great Eddie Guerrero. And like some Royal Rumble events you see in the WWE (such as Too Cool dancing when they were the sole combatants in the ring back in 2000), there are moments of silliness such as Brienne’s transformation sequences that are meant to spoof Shoujo anime.
Through this battle of epic proportions, fans are introduced to original and unique characters, most especially Jiren from Universe 11, the heavy favorite to win. Due to the extreme strength of Jiren, fans get to see Goku’s newest (and maybe last?) ultimate power-up transformation, Ultra Instinct.
4. Spike Spiegel vs. Vincent Volaju from Cowboy Bebop: Tengoku no Tobira (Cowboy Bebop: The Movie)
- Episodes: 1 (feature film)
- Aired: Sept 1, 2001
Out for the biggest payday of his bounty-hunting career, Spike is out to catch Vincent before he can release a virus at a Halloween parade. While Spike’s fights with Vicious in the TV series are meant to have them contrast as being a gunfighter and a swordsman on a surface definition, Vincent is meant to be Spike’s challenge in a pure striking battle (despite opening with a couple of gunshots). As many fans know, Spike’s fighting style where he relies on shuffling and kicking from a distance is based on how Bruce Lee fights in his movies. With Vincent, he fights in a way that shows he is hardened by battlefield experience. His approach to fighting shows it is meant to kill his opponents, and every punch he throws is thrown with not just bad, but with the worst of intentions!
This is masterfully demonstrated as Spike relies on fighting on the outside to use his kicks, and Vincent prefers getting in close range for some brutal combination punches and small joint manipulation takedowns that are more akin to aikido. At times, Vincent even goes for Spike’s gunshot wound to inflict more pain. What makes this fight entertaining is that it shows the difference between who these two are as fighters and as human beings. Spike is a playful street fighter and Vincent is a deadly soldier, and their styles undeniably demonstrate their mindsets and personalities.
Spike simply wants to take his opponent alive so he can claim his bounty while Vincent doesn’t really care what happens to Spike as long as he’s out of the way. Sometimes people wonder how a pure martial artist like an MMA fighter would do against an accomplished military operative in actual combat and if they want to know, this fight is a great demonstration of that in anime form.
3. Ippo Makunouchi vs. Ryuhei Sawamurai from Hajime no Ippo: Rising
- Episodes: 25
- Aired: Oct 6, 2013 – Mar 29, 2014
In Ippo’s fifth domestic title defense, he faces Ryuhei Sawamura, one of his most dangerous opponents in both the anime and manga. Like Ippo’s rival, Miyata, Sawamura is a counter specialist but is stylistically different from him. While Miyata relies a lot on sticking and moving, Sawamura tends to remain stationary and lets his opponents come to him. In addition to his counters, Sawamura can keep his opponent’s at bay with his rapid corkscrew lefts, the bullet. And due to his former background as a street fighter, he likes to throw in a foul or two just to torture his opponents such as elbowing or tripping them.
A lot of people say that boxing is 10% physical and 90% mental, and this fight is a perfect representation of that saying. Sometimes just simply changing your stance can psyche your opponent out and that’s what Sawamura does to Ippo when he assumes a proper fighting stance as opposed to his open guard as it puts Ippo in a panic. What also makes Sawamura a difficult opponent for Ippo is that he can exploit the true weakness of Ippo’s Dempsey Roll. While past opponents such as Sendo and Shimabukuro (who are more power oriented) simply clinched in on Ippo to stop his momentum, Sawamura as an out boxer just steps back, dodges Ippo’s hooks and throws in a counter punch of his own.
Sawamura likes to play the torture game on his opponent and even when he gets the chance to get the knockout, he usually doesn’t take it just so he can dish out some more damage for his own amusement. He demonstrates this in round 4 but despite being pushed to physical and mental limits, Ippo finds a way to pull through by gaining a second wind and modifying his Dempsey Roll as a countermeasure to Sawamura’s counters and gain the victory after a brutal seven-round bout.
2. Chun Li Vs. Vega from Street Fighter II Movie (Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie)
- Episodes: 1 (feature film)
- Aired: Aug 6, 1994
Though the original game to Street Fighter is famous for introducing gimmicky moves such as fireballs, the anime adaptation strongly emphasizes more on the actual hand-to-hand fighting with an occasional Hadouken thrown in. While the anime movie of Street Fighter II is full of intense fight scenes, if any fight tops this movie as a very close second on this list, it certainly has to be the fight between Chun Li and Vega. In this battle, Chun Li is fighting for her life and Vega is fighting just to torture her for his own sadistic pleasure.
While no fireballs are thrown, this fight does a great job of showcasing the fighting styles of these two from the original game. You see Vega relying a lot on sliding, flipping, and jumping, and Chun Li relies a lot on her kicks and the fight is super intense. And those kicks include her spinning bird kick and lightning kick. What makes this fight exciting is that viewers can truly feel the danger Chun Li is in as she is slowly losing consciousness due to her bleeding from Vega’s claw attacks and using so much energy, but then a sudden adrenaline rush allows her to finish Vega and drop kick him through a wall for him to plunge to his death. While the Japanese version uses a soft instrumental version to the movie’s theme song, the English edition pumps you up with some KMFDM.
1. Kujo Jotaro vs. Dio Brando from JoJo no Kimyou na Bouken Stardust Crusaders (JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders)
- Episodes: 48
- Aired: Apr 5, 2014 - Jun 20, 2015
If any fight can be number one, it certainly has to be Jotaro vs. Dio from the third story arc of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Stardust Crusaders. This fight has the three B’s: brains, brawn, and balls. By having these three B’s, you can get a masterful combination of strategy and pure brutality when Dio and Jotaro fight through the streets of Cairo from one end to another. When you see these two fight each other, every punch or kick they throw is with the intention to kill one another. If any of you readers have watched the real ECW from the 1990s (anything with New Jack, Sandman, or Sabu) or a Japanese hardcore wrestling match (such as electric barbed wire matches), the insanity of this fight equals to something like of that caliber.
What contributes to the strategy portion of this fight is the gimmick of Stands or personal psychic/astral warriors. What makes Dio dangerous beyond being a vampire is the true power of his stand, The World, is that it can temporarily stop time. Even though he can only stop time for a few seconds, within that time frame, Dio can cause maximum mayhem. However, as the fight progresses, Jotaro plays some mind games with Dio to make him lose his cool. Thanks to Jotaro’s determination and strategic mind, he finds a way to come out on top and defeat Dio once and for all for an exciting conclusion.
Last, we would like to make some quick shout-outs to Hisoka vs. Gon from Hunter X Hunter and the Grocery Store Brawl from Ben-To. While Jackie Chan and Jet Li films are exciting in their own ways in addition to other staged forms of combat such as professional wrestling, the fights in anime just take it to extremes that most people could never imagine. The fact that anime makes the unthinkable possible is what makes anime as a whole, so awesome.
The explosiveness of the original Dragon Ball Z is a great demonstration of that. Beyond Dragon Ball Z, other old school fighting anime such as Yuu Yuu Hakusho also excellently portray how strategy and mind games are also important in the fight game. And if you just want some pure brutality and violence that puts Mortal Kombat to shame, there’s always the original Hokuto no Ken. So in addition to what we listed, what other fight scenes that are hand-to-hand oriented are worthy of mention? If you have any ideas, leave them in the comments! Until then, see your next fight!