Will the winner of Deontay Wilder-Tyson Fury 2 be the world's top heavyweight?

US boxer Deontay Wilder (L) and British boxer Tyson Fury get into an altercation during their press conference February 19, 2020 at the MGM Grand Las Vegas in Las Vegas, Nevada. - The boxers will fight for the World Boxing Council (WBC) Heavyweight Championship Title on February 22, 2020 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. (Photo by John Gurzinski / AFP) (Photo by JOHN GURZINSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury get into an altercation during their news conference Feb. 19, 2020 at the MGM Grand Las Vegas in Las Vegas. (John Gurzinski/AFP via Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS — For much of his 11-plus years as a professional, including more than five years as the WBC heavyweight champion, Deontay Wilder has endured frequently withering criticism.

He can’t box, his critics say. His fundamentals are all wrong, they’ve shouted. Worse, they questioned his choice of opponents and suggested he was looking to pad his record by taking on the lesser fights in the sport and avoiding the more difficult fights.

But as his rematch with Tyson Fury on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden for the WBC and lineal titles nears, the perception has finally swung in Wilder’s favor.

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The pendulum has swung so far that it’s widely accepted that the winner of Saturday’s bout will be regarded as the world’s top heavyweight.

“I don’t even think it’s a question; of course it is,” Fury said.

That’s a vindication of sorts for Wilder, who didn’t take up boxing until 2005 and who has struggled to win favor with fans and media who have found fault in much of what he’s done.

Some are now referring to him as the hardest puncher in boxing history, including Ben Davison, Fury’s friend and former trainer. Whether that’s true or not is impossible to prove, and so it’s just a topic for discussion over a cold one, but that misses the point.

The fact that Wilder is even in the conversation is evidence of the acceptance he’s finally started to gain.

“We all can remember when the heavyweight division was in a dark hole, a dark tunnel,” Wilder said. “We had dominant champions, but no one knew who the heavyweight champion of the world was, especially in America. When you’re a heavyweight who’s kind of up in the division, it’s kind of depressing. People aren’t talking about your sport or even the division. I knew it was going to be a hard task for me in America, especially as I am the champion. I’m the only [heavyweight] champion here in America.

“It was something I had to carry on my back, just like I did the Olympics. But I was up for the task. I knew it was going to be a hard challenge. A lot of people degraded me. A lot of people don’t appreciate, or didn’t appreciate, [what I’ve done]. Over time, they have come around, the naysayers and the doubters, or maybe I’m just the last man standing. Whatever the case may be, we’re here and the heavyweight division is booming and is on fire. They say when you have a healthy heavyweight division, everything else unfolds and it becomes great.”

Wilder is 41-0-1 with 40 knockouts, while Fury is 29-0-1 with 20 knockouts. So the winner on Saturday will be the only major unbeaten heavyweight.

Defending champion Andy Ruiz Jr., left, takes a right cross to the face during his fight against Britain's Anthony Joshua in their World Heavyweight Championship contest at the Diriyah Arena, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia early Sunday Dec. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Andy Ruiz Jr. takes a right cross to the face during his fight against Anthony Joshua in their heavyweight championship contest at the Diriyah Arena, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia early Sunday Dec. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Anthony Joshua, who on Dec. 7 outlasted a woefully out-of-shape Andy Ruiz Jr. to win a unanimous decision and reclaim the IBF, WBA and WBO belts, is 23-1 with 21 KOs.

His promoter, Eddie Hearn of Matchroom Sport, said that the winner of Saturday’s bout can’t be considered the No. 1 heavyweight and must fight Joshua to prove it. Joshua has a mandatory with Kubrat Pulev in the spring, but Hearn said he’d be open to fighting the Wilder-Fury winner after that.

Talks of a Joshua-Wilder or, to a lesser degree, Joshua-Fury fight have dragged on for almost as long as they did for the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight that finally came together in 2015 after six years of talks.

Joshua had been regarded as the sport’s No. 1 heavyweight until he was shockingly knocked out by Ruiz in June.

But Hearn still made the argument for Joshua, who was the 2012 Olympic super heavyweight gold medalist.

“Fury versus Wilder is a great fight, but let’s be honest: Until the winner fights A.J., there will never be a clear No. 1 in the division,” Hearn said.

There’s never really a clear anything in boxing, but Hearn is correct. No matter how good either Fury or Wilder looks on Saturday, there will be those who will side with Joshua over either of them.

Joshua’s argument was hurt not only by the knockout loss to Ruiz, but by his tentative approach in the rematch. Ruiz came in way over weight and out of shape, and Joshua never wavered from a cautious tact in which he did everything to avoid danger. He won the fight going away, but a lot of that was because Ruiz simply didn’t have the gas tank to do much.

The winner of Saturday’s bout will be the only major unbeaten heavyweight, and will have been 1-0-1 against the other person.

That’s enough to proclaim the winner as the mythical top heavyweight in the world.

But — and in boxing, there is always a but — that will be contingent on the winner agreeing, as Hearn said, to prove it against Joshua in his next outing.

If that comes to fruition, boxing fans will finally have what they’ve long sought: A dominant unquestioned champion and a deep, talented and lively division.

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