If there has been one distinction of Japanese anime that has captured many fans around the world, it most certainly has been the intense, dramatic and creative fight scenes. I have been a long time practitioner of the martial arts and shows, such as “Ninja Turtles”, “Power Rangers”, and Van Damme movies. They were my initial inspirations to take them up.
Then, when I was in sixth grade in 1995, I bought my first anime VHS, “Street Fighter II The Animated Movie,” and the action sequences in that were more reliant in physical techniques, as opposed to gimmicky fireballs that were abusively used in the American “Street Fighter” cartoon (how many times per episode did Guile use his sonic boom anyway?). I was only 11 and the fight scenes were nothing like I had ever seen.
I was already a big fan of the games, but the fight between Chun-Li and Vega/Balrog renewed my love for anything action and I saw myself trying to train to fight at the same intensity. As a result, it further gave me inspiration to see more of what anime (or what fans referred to as Japanimation back in the day) had to offer.
Since the fighting/action genre was my gateway to anime, I will share my personal top 10 martial artists/fighters. The fighters I will be listing will consist all kinds. Some will be listed because they can kick ass and take names. Some are listed because they fight for what they believe in. Others are listed because they got the biggest balls. Some you may agree with, some you will not. Let's get ready to rumble with ten rounds of what I personally call the best fighters in anime.
10. Ricardo Martinez from Hajime no Ippo New Challenger
- Episodes: 26
- Aired: January 2009 – June 2009
The reigning champion in Ippo’s weight class, not much is known about his background but he is the man that beat Date Eiji and the man that beat Ippo in the pro ring. When Date gets his re-match 18 months after he beat Ippo, Martinez had already achieved 20 title defenses. For a tune up, Martinez spars with Ippo and he practically knocks Ippo out with just his jabs and does not throw any other punches.
When it came to fight time, it lasted 10 rounds out of 12. Date does have his moments but it was not enough. Despite his best efforts, Date dishes little to no damage on Martinez, but still acknowledges Date as his greatest opponent while destroying his hand, jaw and probably a few ribs.
If you think he was vicious in the anime, wait until you play him in “Hajime no Ippo 2 Victorious Road” for PlayStation 2. The dude is harder than every SNK boss put together.
9. Yabuki Joe from Ashita no Joe
- Episodes: 71
- Aired: April 1970 – September 1971
Before Rocky Balboa was the million to one underdog, Mike Tyson created controversy, and Manny Pacquiao became a Philippine Symbol, the world of anime and manga gave Japan the iconic Yabuki Joe from “Ashita no Joe.”
Joe starts off as a wandering 15-year-old hobo that ends up meeting Tange Danpei, an alcoholic boxing coach. Due to his initial scam involving children, Joe ends up in juvenile detention for a little over a year, and Tange still sees potential that Joe can be a champion. Joe was already a natural street brawler, but he needs to know the basics of the sweet science such as a jab and a one-two. Joe doesn't get motivated until he has issues with another inmate, Tooru Rikiishi, a suspended boxing prospect who is there for assaulting a reporter. Humiliated by losing to Rikiishi, Joe finally takes boxing seriously to beat Rikiishi in the pro ring.
What makes Joe such a great fighter? The guy will not take crap from anybody. He has natural knock out power and a stubborn sense of toughness. Plus, his triple cross counter is not a move you want to be on the receiving end of, if you want to keep your jaw. What makes him a great character is that he is always conflicted. His success in boxing makes him a hero to the people of his shantytown neighborhood and he never cares about the fame or money.
At the same time, some of his antics have made me believe that he makes a young Mike Tyson look like a saint. Tange may have trained a great boxer, but he never could get his behavior under control. Joe has used abusive language towards women, turned his first license test into a street fight, and assaulted reporters.
In the end, Joe fights the champion of the world, Jose Mendoza. Mendoza is unstoppable and has easily destroyed all challengers. Joe goes against those odds and they have the most grueling 15 rounds that probably rivals the Thrilla in Manila, in which both Ali and Fraizer claimed they were near death. The ending to the series is probably one of the most iconic endings in Japanese history. You see an image that represents the blood, sweat, tears and sacrifices on what it takes to achieve one’s dreams.
8. Shirahama Ken’ichi from Kenichi The Mightiest Disciple
- Episodes: 50
- Aired: October 2006 – September 2007
Being the weakest kid in school, Shirahama Ken’ichi joins his schools karate team. However, he is only used as a human punching bag and is challenged to a match where the loser quits the club. Thankfully, Ken’ichi’s new friend, Miu, comes from a home of masters in the martial arts (where he can learn street fighting style karate, kung fu, ninjutsu, aikijujutsu, and muay thai) and seeks their training to win the fight. However, he was only trained in grappling and he wins the challenge by using a counter throw not legal in karate and quits in principle to continue his training at Miu’s dojo. Due to his progress, Ken’ichi begins to be targeted by Ragnarok, a gang of martial artists.
Ken’ichi may not have been born super strong and has no natural talent for the martial arts, but he is always willing to put in the work, though, it is at the expense of what can be legally called child abuse in most parts of the world. I think the fact that he is also human and knows what limits can be broken, is what makes him a great fighter. He has a strong sense of justice and demonstrates chivalry such as his unwillingness to fight women no matter what their capabilities are.
What I also enjoy about Ken’ichi’s fights is that he takes a very realistic approach to it. Like when Ken’ichi is challenged by a boxer, Takeda, Ken’ichi conclusively beats him by using leg kicks. I think in anime definition, Ken’ichi is a good representation of Bruce Lee’s “Jeet Kune Do” methods of applying that works in a real street fight.
7. Chun Li from Street Fighter II The Animated Movie
- Episodes: Movie
- Aired: August 1994
I know some of you feel I should put Ryu on this list representing “Street Fighter,” but I am going with Chun Li because she shows how awesome she is in the Vega/Balrog fight. I feel that her basic move set and fighting style are accurately represented in the film and I totally dig how intense she was. I love how realistically, in a physical sense, the movie includes her spinning bird kick and how she uses her “hyakuretsukyaku” to kick her opponent out of her 20th floor apartment room. While watching Chun Li fight, she me feel she was really fighting for her life. She goes as far as throwing a couch and a lamp. She does everything she can in a realistic sense. To me, her objective was to survive as opposed to win while Vega/Balrog was a sadistic hunter and the way they contrasted was beautifully expressed in this crazy battle. I also feel it was a good way to demonstrate that fights don't have to be reliant on special fireball attacks, and going pure in hand-to-hand combat is more than enough to bring suspense and excitement.
6. Hanma Yujiro from Grappler Baki
- Episodes: 48
- Aired: January 2001 – December 2001
If any mixed martial arts promoters are looking for the best fighter to sign with them, look no further than Hanma Yujiro, the father of the main character, Baki. I say it is very disputable based on the anime whether or not Yujiro is pure evil. Yujiro may not be motivated by world domination, but did prove that he can take over America by beating Bill Clinton’s secret service team and making him cry on his knees just to prove so. In addition, he is immune to nuclear attacks, cancer and AIDS. To make things crazier, he can stop earthquakes just by punching the ground.
The only thing that motivates him is fighting and he had a son for the sake of making him a worthy opponent to fight. Hell, he kills his own wife just to motivate Baki. The dude treats his opponents like toys. He is also willing to go to extremes for “trophies” from time to time and has no issues with killing some of his opponents.
What you see in the anime is only the beginning. In the manga, it will be insane.
5. Terry Bogard from Fatal Fury
- Episodes: 2 OVAs plus 1 movie
- Aired: December 1992, July 1993, July 1994
Originally a game character from the SNK “Fatal Fury” and “King of Fighters” franchises, Terry’s design and origins are true to those source materials. In the first OAV, he is fighting to avenge the death of his father. In the second OAV, he is fighting to restore his honor as a fighter. In the movie, Terry fights to save the world. Like Ryu from the “Street Fighter” series, Terry is always traveling the world training and looking for a thrilling fight. The tragic thing about him is that he does not get the girl since he loses two love interests with Lilly in the first OAV, and Sulia from the movie.
In addition to retaining his moves from the game, such as the power geyser and the burn knuckle, he is given a few upgrades that would later influence the games that would be released after the motion picture. This is from when he beats Mars, the God of War himself in hand-to-hand combat with a technique which would be called the “Buster Wolf” later debuting in “Mark of the Wolves” in 1999. Anybody who defeats a God is a must for this addition.
4. Uzumaki Naruto from Naruto
- Episodes: Ongoing
- Aired: October 2002 - Present
Uzumaki Naruto may not be the greatest ninja in a technical sense (seriously, an orange outfit?), but it’s his heart and balls that make him an admirable fighter. He may not have been born a genius like his rival Sasuke, but his ultimate goal to be the Hokage motivates him to never give up. In addition to his hidden kyubi powers, elite ninjas such as Kakashi and legends such as Jiraiya are willing to train him in bringing out his full potential. When worse comes to worse, Naruto will always find a creative way to win and look cool.
Naruto always brings a heavy atmosphere of emotions to his battles and will not tolerate anyone’s excuses on why his opponent walks on a dark path. Despite his isolated upbringing, Naruto understands that growing up as an outcast is no excuse for world domination and is willing to seek the approval of others by doing the right thing. Naruto is an awesome fighter because he will always fight for what is right.
His antics may not be traditional to how people view ninjas, but his honor, loyalty, and determination make him a true warrior.
3. El Cid from Saint Seiya The Lost Canvas
- Episodes: 26
- Aired: June 2009 – July 2011
The Capricorn Gold Saint in the 1800s, what makes El Cid a great fighter is that he fought a team of Gods by himself. Even though the Gold Saints are the strongest of Athena’s warriors, their great Cosmo is not enough to take on a God, let alone three. In the battle that defies space and time, El Cid is pushed to every corner and even loses an arm as the gods toy with him, but finds a way to achieve his goals. His fight is proof that it is always not about winning but about doing your part in achieving the greater good of the mission.
Even though he is not viscous like Shura, the Capricorn Saint in the original series, El Cid has a take no prisoners approach and shows wit and balls. He demonstrates a unique sense of compassion for his fellow saints and loyalty to his best friend Sisyphus. Those qualities are what factor him to go against the odds of the gods themselves.
2. Kenshiro from Hokuto no Ken
- Episodes: 152
- Aired: October 1984 – February 1988
One of the biggest bad asses in anime and manga, Kenshiro is the sole heir to a powerful martial art known as Hokuto Shinken. It allows Kenshiro to use 100% of his body’s potential and many of his attacks, at the right pressure points, result in an explosive blood bath. And his Bruce Lee inspired battle cries make him more awesome. His toughest challenges were against Souther, whose unique reverse-physiological structure made him immune to the effects of Hokuto Shineken to some extent, and Kenshiro’s own brother, Raoh, a survival of the fittest conqueror. Despite the destructive power of his fists, he does have some healing abilities such as giving a little girl the ability to speak again.
Kenshiro can't always save the day in this crazy apocalyptic world of 199X, but when he sees that innocent lives have been ruthlessly taken, he will pay it back 100 fold. Don't bother messing with him, because the moment you do, you're already dead.
1. Son Goku from Dragon Ball
- Episodes: 291
- Aired: April 1989 – January 1996
Many probably feel a list such as this would be nothing without Goku from the “Dragon Ball” series itself. “Dragon Ball Z’s” hyper-paced battles, to many, is why the action in anime is very distinct and has this “magic” that cannot be done in live action Kung Fu movies. The imagination of the action through the panning, the explosiveness, the speed and movement can only be captured by animation.
Born from a warrior alien race, Goku still grows up learning the martial arts from his adoptive Grandfather and various unorthodox masters. He would use his skills to save the universe throughout his lifetime. In addition, he has many energy attacks, such as the kamehameha, the genki dama, kaio-ken power ups and his Super Saiya-jin transformations. Goku’s training ethic is never ending and is ready to take on all challengers. At times, a mix his Saiya-jin pride of seeking the thrill of a tough fight, and his pure heart in wanting to spare his opponents, has cost him numerous advantages but he always manages to pull through or allow others to take the challenge.
For honorable mentions, there is Inokuma Yawara from “Yawara,” Saotome Ranma from “Ranma 1/2,” Spike Spiegel from “Cowboy Bebop,” Onizuka Eikichi from “Great Teacher Onizuka,” Yamaguchi Yumiko from “Gokusen” (though I emphasize the live action version of the character in this instance), and Horiguchi Genki from “Ganbare Genki.”
So who do you think can go toe-to-toe or beat anybody on this list? I will admit with an abundant amount of quality action titles out there, it can be both an easy and difficult task for fans in coming up who is the best fighter in all of anime. Who thrills you? Who do you think can save the universe? Or be the champ? Please comment below and share what you personally think are the greatest.