Goku vs. Jiren: What Made the Fight So Good?

In one corner stands the champion of Universe 7, in the other, the champion of Universe 11. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Their fists would decide nothing less than the question of cosmic survival. Unfortunately, it’s clear that one champion far exceeds the other, and our hero, the Universe 7 champ, is in dire straits. What can he possibly do? How can he overcome the pressure both of his opponent and the stakes involved?

These are the questions Dragon Ball Super presents us with the Goku vs. Jiren fight. It’s the best in the Dragon Ball meta-series since Goku vs. Freiza. I’m going to tell you the reasons why, and why, if you’re interested in telling stories, you should study Goku vs. Jiren carefully.

Goku vs. Jiren
The champions square off for their fight, the main event of the Tournament of Power!

Setting the Stakes

By studying professional wrestling, you’ll learn that there are three factors that go into writing a superb fight:

  1. The build (the overall story and the personalities involved).
  2. The “work rate” (the moves in the match).
  3. The psychology of the fight (the twists and turns and you see in the match that keep you on edge, the story within the story).

The better each of these different aspects are handled, the better the fight will be. Goku vs. Jiren scores high in all three categories.

First, we’ll start with the build. During the events of Dragon Ball Super, a “Tournament of Power” was announced by the rulers of the multiverse, the two Zenos, and their administrator, the Grand Minister. Eight universes would field teams of 10 fighters who would try to eliminate each other. The single universe with surviving fighters at the end would get to make a wish with the Super Dragon Balls, which could grant anything.

The losing universes, though, would all be erased from reality by the Zenos.

Already, before a single shot is fired or punch thrown, we understand that this battle will involve cosmic stakes. The slightest error means universal destruction. With these stakes in the back of the viewer’s mind, every move the fighters make feels more important. No action is random. There’s a good reason for what you’re seeing, and as “the Godzilla of persuasion” tells us, providing a reason for what you present, even a bad one, makes what your message more impactful.

Now that Dragon Ball Super has captured our attention heading into the Tournament of Power, we can better appreciate what happens during the actual combat as the build continues.

The Goku vs. Jiren Build

Before and during the Tournament of Power, we see Jiren’s reputation slowly building. We hear from others, like his comrade Toppo and the gods of his native Universe 11, about how powerful he is. Yet, for the longest time, he remains silent and uninterested, not saying or doing anything.

Then, in a little glimmer, see him temporarily incapacitate the berserk, ultra-powerful Saiyan, Kale, who had given Goku a run, with a single shot. Later on, he takes out the champion of Universe 3, Maji-Kayo, with a single punch that doesn’t even connect. The shockwave alone knocks him out.

First through the statements, and then through these hints, Jiren is built up. By the time Goku finally confronts him, the tension is thick in the air. Already, without Jiren doing much, the fight has a main event of WrestleMania feel to it. During the first half of that first round, as Goku slowly increases his power and his friends make statements about him, the viewer is reminded of the virtues of the hero, and his long history of being the best.

And then Goku powers up to his full might, Super Saiyan Blue. The other warriors stare in anticipation, increasing the viewer’s own, as more statements are made hinting about Jiren’s abilities.

Jiren quickly proves all the hype when he destroys Goku easily.

That’s how you build a monster of an opponent!

Note also the high “work rate” (as they would say in professional wrestling) during that first round. The intensity of the moves suck you into the fight, complementing the build. They slide into the psychology of the match. How is our hero going to get past those invisible blasts? If he can get past them, how is he going to be able to mount some offense that can even damage Jiren?

That first round was a disaster, but an artful disaster always gives rise to a new opportunity.

Goku Awakens Ultra Instinct

Jiren easily repelled Goku’s Spirit Bomb, which the latter thought was his last card. Instead, it awakened a new power within him, Ultra Instinct, wherein his body parts move independently on their own. His mentor, Whis, explains it.

However, it’s clear that our hero has yet to master this power. He loses it quickly, though it had shown some potential against the colossus of the Tournament of Power. Jiren, after seeing the Spirit Bomb fail and his loss of Ultra Instinct, believes the battle won, and retreats to meditate, rather than eliminate Goku on the spot.

This overconfidence would prove to be a massive mistake. Fortune’s wheel was about to turn.

Goku recovers and does battle with all sorts of opponents in the Tournament of Power, eventually coming to fight the immensely powerful fused Saiyan Kefla, the fusion of the aforementioned Kale and Caulifla. There, Ultra Instinct returns to him, and testing it out, he eliminates the threat.

Here, we see the power of Ultra Instinct proved, and the work rate of the fight with Kefla was tremendous. The action attracts the viewer and shifts his attention to anticipate the fight to come: Jiren.

And yet, Dragon Ball Super makes us wait, increasing our anticipation that much further. The Tournament of Power continues as Team Universe 7 whittles away the remaining competition until all that remains are the three strongest warriors from Team Universe 11.


Callback Psychology

Goku and Vegeta, the man he shared an incredibly complicated friendship and rivalry with, held Jiren off in a coordinated attack for a bit, but the alien proved too much, and smacked Vegeta away. As he was leaving the ring, exhausted, Vegeta gave Goku his last bit of energy, to give him one more chance. Dragon Ball Super thus gives us a great callback to their complicated history. This scene also gives us another glimpse of Vegeta’s growth as a character throughout the Dragon Ball series, from marauder to husband, father, and friend.

By putting his confidence in Goku as the last hope against Jiren, Vegeta is not only getting over his own pride, but showing that he can put them aside for greater aspirations. His faith in Goku is his recognition of his rival’s greatness. Admitting his own limitations is the path to his own growth as well, so that he may one day surpass them.

Vegeta’s defeat is the final element that turns Jiren into the looming colossus that must be beaten. Goku resolves to oblige him. He does, by once again breaking his limitations and mastering Ultra Instinct. Dragon Ball Super treats us to an epic scene and music in the process to hype the coming climax that much more.

After an episode of great “work rate” action, Goku defeats Jiren, but his Ultra Instinct departs him before he can deliver the finishing blow – an agonizing twist! Now with some breathing room, Jiren looks ready to end the fight. It’s at just at this moment that Frieza steps in and thus votes confidence in our hero. This unusual alliance between the hero and his worst nemesis through the years, with all its attendant callback, takes the fight over the top, and they prevail thanks to Jiren’s exhaustion. Universe 7 wins the Tournament of Power!

The one weakness that the fight has is that Jiren isn’t an impressive character in terms of his backstory. Dragon Ball Super doesn’t fully flesh out his character. He’s not a despicable heel like Frieza or Cell, so you’re not eagerly rooting for his downfall. You aren’t attached to him much. Still, he serves as a great foil to force our heroes to overcome their limits, and the Tournament of Power’s stakes are so high that they make up for this shortcoming.

Spend an hour watching this fight. You won’t regret it and will learn much about the art of storytelling.

Read Stumped to learn even more.

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