By Harvey Hoffman

For much of his more than five years as the WBC heavyweight champion, Deontay Wilder has endured 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 tonight in Vegas for the WBC and lineal titles nears, the perception has finally swung in Wilder’s favor.

The pendulum has swung so far that it’s widely accepted that the winner of tonight’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.

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