Deontay Wilder has single-handedly revived the heavyweight division

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 13: Deontay Wilder screams during a news conference with Tyson Fury at The Novo Theater at L.A. Live on January 13, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Deontay Wilder screams during a news conference with Tyson Fury at The Novo Theater at L.A. Live on Jan. 13, 2020, in Los Angeles. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Five years into his reign as WBC heavyweight champion, questions still remain about Deontay Wilder.

On Jan. 17, 2015, Wilder defeated Bermane Stiverne in Las Vegas to win the WBC belt. That win came when there were legitimate questions about the caliber of his opposition and, indeed, about the caliber of the heavyweight division as a whole.

But now, the heavyweight division is better than it has been in years, and the primary question surrounding Wilder is whether he’s the hardest puncher in boxing history.

It was just five weeks ago that Anthony Joshua reclaimed the heavyweight title from Andy Ruiz Jr. in a hugely hyped rematch, while we’re five weeks away from a rematch between Wilder and Tyson Fury on Feb. 22 at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas.

There was no guarantee that Wilder would be the guy to help drag the division out of its dark ages. He had no real wins of note prior to fighting Stiverne five years ago, even though he entered the bout with a 32-0 record and 32 knockouts. He showed extraordinary power — 18 of his 32 wins were by first-round knockout — but they came against no-hopers or fighters on the back ends of their careers.

His most notable opponents in that stage of his career were probably Malik Scott, Siarhei Liakhovich and Audley Harrison. None of them was truly a threat.

And though Wilder defeated Stiverne by a wide margin — he won 10, 11 and 12 of the rounds, according to the three judges — to become champion, he left the ring with as many questions as he answered. Stiverne was hospitalized after the fight with rhabdomyolysis, but Wilder was unable to finish him.

He didn’t give any indication that night that he would be special.

But as he awaits his hotly anticipated rematch with Fury, which is expected to do more than one million pay-per-view buys, the script has changed. Wilder is no worse than 1A behind Fury when talking about the world’s best heavyweights, and to give him the benefit of the doubt, he’s already No. 1.

He’s dropped every man he’s ever fought, and had Fury down twice in their classic 2018 battle at Staples Center in Los Angeles. It was only a miraculous recovery by Fury from a thudding 12th round knockdown that kept Wilder from becoming the lineal heavyweight champion.

One judge scored that fight for Wilder. A second had it for Fury and a third had it even, meaning it was a split draw.

Since that night, Wilder has knocked out Dominic Breazeale in the first round and Luis Ortiz in the seventh, both with nuclear bombs disguised as right hands.

Ex-Fury trainer Ben Davison said after Wilder stopped Ortiz in November that he felt Wilder was the hardest puncher in boxing history. That’s saying something considering the huge number of sluggers who existed, but it is hardly a stretch.

And while Wilder was seen as wild and crude heading into that 2015 bout with Stiverne, even that perception has changed. He’s far from a classic boxer, but he’s shown repeatedly that he is able to create openings for his power shots with his style.

Boxing is all about maximizing your strengths and minimizing the opponent’s strengths so that you land more (and more significant blows) than the other side. Wilder has done that repeatedly, and Fury said at a news conference last week, “It’s not luck. He’s got to land those.”

Five years ago when he beat Stiverne, Wilder became a title-holder in one of boxing’s worst divisions.

Today, he has made 10 successful defenses, is regarded as among the greatest punchers in the sport’s colorful history and stands on the verge of a mega-payday against Fury with other big bouts against Joshua, Ruiz and Fury to come after that.

Five years is a long time to reign as champion, and Wilder has proven that those who doubted him on the night he won the belt were misguided.

We’re in the midst of a heavyweight renaissance, and it’s Wilder who’s driving that bus.

More from Yahoo Sports: