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Wilder, Fury have both beaten critics en route to big fight

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Both heavyweight stars have proven worth the early hype in their careers, though there were plenty of doubters along the way.

Deontay Wilder v Tyson Fury - Los Angeles Press Conference Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

Deontay Wilder. Tyson Fury. Two of the best heavyweights in the world today, poised to take center stage this Saturday night in Las Vegas, live on Showtime pay-per-view.

Wilder, 33, will be defending his WBC title belt. Fury, 30, is still considered by many to be the heavyweight division’s lineal champion.

There’s a lot on the line, and it’s one of the biggest fights of 2018, years in the making.

But it hasn’t always been this way for either fighter. Both came into the sport with hype. Fury because he’s a big, tall, trash talking, charismatic heavyweight with, let’s face it, one of the greatest names you’ll ever hear for a fighter.

Tyson Fury. That’s a Rocky movie name.

Fury turned pro almost exactly a decade ago, when on Dec. 6, 2008, he climbed into the ring in Nottingham to face a Hungarian club fighter named Bela Gyongyosi. Fury put him away in just over two minutes.

A few months later, he faced Lee Swaby in Birmingham.

And then Fury punched himself in the face.

To this day, people share the GIF and the video and laugh at Fury’s expense. With good reason, mind you. It’s a funny thing that happened, particularly considering he wasn’t just some nobody fighter with no talent. This was a promising prospect.

More forgotten is he got Swaby out after four rounds. That he kept on fighting regularly, beefing up his record. He scored his first really solid win over John McDermott in Sept. 2009, outpointing the veteran to win the English heavyweight title. He stopped McDermott in a 2010 rematch to win a shot at the British title.

That fight came in 2011, against Dereck Chisora, a rugged and dangerous opponent who is still making noise, and has his own big fight coming this month, a rematch with Dillian Whyte on Dec. 22.

Fury beat Chisora, clearly, winning the British and Commonwealth titles. But there were still people who thought he wasn’t all that.

Tyson Fury Media Workout Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

He beat the likes of Neven Pajkic and Martin Rogan and Vinny Maddalone and Kevin Johnson, and didn’t get much — if any — real credit for it from a lot of fans. He should have beaten them, and he did, so it wasn’t anything to get excited about.

More doubts came after he met former cruiserweight champion Steve Cunningham in April 2013 in New York, his first trip to the United States. Cunningham, who was 44 pounds lighter than Fury and a hell of a lot shorter, threw a monster overhand right in the second round, and put the giant down on the canvas.

Fury got up and recovered, holding off Cunningham’s blitzing attack, and eventually he knocked him out in the seventh round to stay unbeaten. It was a gut check win for Fury against a skilled, hungry opponent. For what it’s worth, Cunningham led on two scorecards at the time of stoppage, and the third was even.

The doubts remained. Fury beat Joey Abell. He beat Chisora in a rematch, stopping him that time. He beat Christian Hammer by stoppage, dominating the fight.

And then, in Nov. 2015, he put it all on the line. Tyson Fury went to Düsseldorf to face the reigning world heavyweight champion, the true man in the division, Wladimir Klitschko.

Klitschko had held at least one title since 2006, when he beat Chris Byrd for the IBF version of the championship. He’d been a monster since then, his union with trainer Emanuel Steward a perfect one that hid Klitschko’s flaws and weaknesses and exploited his great strengths.

Wladimir added the WBO title in 2008, beating Sultan Ibragimov. He added the WBA title in 2011, beating David Haye in a hugely-anticipated showdown. He’d beaten everyone who had gotten into the ring with him for nearly a decade, and the thing is, he beat almost everyone very handily. For a few years before the Fury bout, he’d barely lost a round against the likes of Jean Marc Mormeck, Tony Thompson, Mariusz Wach, Francesco Pianeta, Alexander Povetkin, Alex Leapai, Kubrat Pulev, and Bryant Jennings.

Klitschko was the favorite, of course, and should have been. What had Fury done, really, to say that he was actually ready to hang with Wladimir, let alone be the man to finally end the Klitschko era of complete dominance over the heavyweight ranks?

And then, well, it happened. Klitschko found himself in the ring opposite a taller man for once. Opposite someone he couldn’t poke with his thundering jab and keep at bay. Opposite someone with a legitimate game plan, whose team had come up with what they thought was a way to beat Wladimir Klitschko.

They were right. 115-112, 115-112, 116-111. All for Tyson Fury. The new heavyweight champion of the world.

It was a shock. Even if you were someone who came in saying, “Hey, styles make fights, and Fury could be trouble,” to see it actually happen after Klitschko had reigned for so long, and so relatively easily, was stunning. There was, finally, a new king in the heavyweight division. The modern legend had been knocked off. And there were no arguments about it. It may not have been the most thrilling fight, but there’s really no question that Fury won it.

But as Tyson Fury reached the pinnacle of the sport, everything soon fell apart for him. He’s admitted — and openly, admirably discussed — his battles with depression and drugs. All of that led to a cancellation of a big rematch with Klitschko, and ultimately, Fury’s absence from the ring for two-and-a-half years.

When Fury fought Klitschko, he tipped the scales at a lean 247 pounds. Another thing he’s battled over his career are critiques of his conditioning — sometimes he’d win in around 250 and look good, sometimes he’d be up around 270, looking a little pudgy. His performances never really suffered, but people harp on these things.

When he came back this past June to fight Sefer Seferi in Manchester, Fury weighed 276 pounds — and it took him a lot of work just to get down to that weight. No doubt, he’d ballooned up in size during his time off. He wasn’t training regularly, wasn’t working out, wasn’t paying much mind to staying fit.

But the itch to get back into the ring came to him. It’s easy to say Fury was heavy against Seferi, not in peak condition, but compared to the Fury we’d seen even months before ringside at fights, he looked good. He took care of the overmatched Seferi in four rounds, then returned on Aug. 18, down to 258 pounds against Francesco Pianeta, a sturdier test. Fury went a full 10 rounds — perhaps just to prove that he could — and won all of them in Belfast.

On Saturday, he has to prove he’s back. And it’s going to take another great effort to do that.

Deontay Wilder Media Workout Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Because across the ring from him will be Deontay Wilder, who has overcome his own share of doubters and naysayers along the way.

Wilder, a native of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, turned pro just a few weeks before Fury did, on Nov. 15, 2008, when he stopped Ethan Cox in two rounds in Nashville, on the Jermain Taylor-Jeff Lacy undercard at Vanderbilt University.

Wilder had won a bronze medal for the 2008 U.S. Olympic team in Beijing, but he was raw and fighting on natural ability and his 6’7” frame, which at the time was weighing in at about 200 pounds for the amateur world.

When he turned pro, he weighed in just over 207 pounds. He was skinny — tall and lanky, like a two guard on a basketball team. He didn’t look like much of a heavyweight threat, to be frank, other than the fact that he was known to have shocking power in his fists.

Fury fought some halfway decent veterans pretty quickly in his pro career. Wilder, on the other hand, did not.

A parade of nobodies with little experience followed the win over Cox. Wilder fought seven times in 2009, and nobody escaped the first round. He fought six more times in 2010, ending that year with a TKO-4 win over Harold Sconiers, a guy who at least had some experience under his belt (and he put Wilder down at one point).

In 2011, it was pretty much more of the same. The opponents got a little better, but they were still tailor made and being fed to Wilder one-by-one. He won six times in 2011. Six more times in 2012.

There were so many people — and I was one of them — questioning the way he was being handled. Surely, if these are the fighters they’re giving him, there are doubts that Wilder can really fight at the pro level. They talked about his power as if he were knocking out people with much of a pulse. These were tomato can opponents!

So the hype got a little tiresome. Even in 2013, when he stepped it up a bit, there were loud detractors. A win in England over Audley Harrison? Big deal, Harrison had been exposed as a pro for years. It was no shock that Wilder knocked him out in 70 seconds, because Harrison often looked terrified when the lights went on.

A win over former titleholder Siarhei Liakhovich? Liakhovich was past his prime, clearly. When he beat Malik Scott in March 2014, hell, plenty of people insisted that Scott had taken a dive at 1:36 of the first round.

He was fighting and winning — and stopping everyone — but so many remained unimpressed.

What many of us failed to understand was that Wilder was being handled with kid gloves because of a simple thing: he was a kid in the boxing game. He didn’t have much amateur experience. He needed to gradually grow into a proper heavyweight frame. He needed to learn his craft as he went along.

There was a method to the madness. And when Wilder got his first world title shot on Jan. 17, 2015, against Bermane Stiverne in Las Vegas, he delivered.

For once, he didn’t stop the guy. But he won on the cards, 118-109, 119-108, and 120-107. He dominated for 12 rounds — and proved he could go 12 rounds, which was just as important in some ways.

Wilder defended for the first time in June 2015, beating Eric Molina by ninth round knockout. He stopped Johann Duhaupas three months later. But now there was new criticism; OK, you won a world title, and these are your challengers?

Artur Szpilka gave Wilder a little trouble in Jan. 2016 before getting knocked clean out in the ninth round. Then there was finally going to be a real challenge in the form of Alexander Povetkin. Unfortunately, Povetkin failed drug tests and that fight was called off.

But Wilder kept fighting. He beat Chris Arreola and Gerald Washington. He set up a fight with the dangerous Cuban Luis Ortiz, only for Ortiz to fail a drug test and have that fight canceled. Instead, Wilder rematched Stiverne, his mandatory challenger. Stiverne went 12 in the first go-round. He lasted 2:59 in the second, as a seemingly enraged and wildly reckless Wilder just leapt off the canvas throwing power shots, knocking him out at the end of the opening round.

Wilder finally did get that big fight that people wanted, the one he could maybe lose, as the Ortiz bout was rescheduled for March of this year in Brooklyn. Ortiz gave Wilder all he could handle and then some. The powerful southpaw Ortiz and Wilder engaged in a back-and-forth, at times almost out of control heavyweight brawl. Ortiz hurt Wilder, and seemingly had him on the ropes. But Wilder stormed back, and ultimately put Ortiz down and out in the 10th round of one of the most purely entertaining fights of the year.

Now, Wilder has Fury, and Fury has Wilder.

In Fury’s greatest victory, he dethroned a king. But Deontay Wilder is nothing like Wladimir Klitschko. In Wilder’s top night — at least in my view — he overcame a stiff challenge and proved he’s more than a single right hand. But Tyson Fury is nothing like Luis Ortiz.

A lot of people thought both of these guys would flame out. That they were nothing but hype jobs, created by promoters and TV networks. Over the years, they’ve both had their rocky moments and struggles, but they’ve never lost, never given in, and ultimately, they’ve both lived up to the hype.

On Saturday, one of them takes another step toward building a legend. And for the life of me, I really can’t pick a winner, because like a lot of folks, I had long ago expected them both to have lost by now. They haven’t. They’ve proven their ability, and they deserve this moment with the spotlight of the boxing world shining bright.