Tyson Fury was denied the fairytale ending many felt he deserved after the three judges at ringside were unable to reach a consensus on the winner following a 12-round heavyweight epic that had viewers glued to their seats throughout.
The Gypsy King appeared in full control for the majority of the contest but was forced to climb off the canvas twice after being felled by Wilder's freakishly-powerful right hand - including a 12th-round knockdown that appeared to render Fury completely unconscious for a number of seconds.
After surviving this late scare, in a final round that will go down in heavyweight history, many thought Fury had done more than enough to regain his world title.
Showtime and BT Sport pundits at ringside both had the bout as a convincing win for the Brit.
However, judges scored the contest 115-111 for Wilder, 114-112 for Fury and 113-113 meaning it was ruled a split-decision draw.
A cagey first round saw both men size each other up as head movement and feints dominated the early exchanges.
However, the contest burst into life late on in the round when Fury appeared to be caught by a left hook before responding with meaningful shots of his own seconds before the bell that Wilder complained had hit him on the back of the head.
But if the champion was rattled early on he did not show it, starting the second round quickly as he twitched and feinted with the threat of a huge right hand ensuring Fury stayed honest despite frequent displays of showmanship from the Manchester boxer.
The closing moments saw Fury dance away from a wild attack by the WBC king with ease, responding with shouts of “dosser” as he made his way back to the corner.
However, a good stiff jab from Wilder caught Fury’s attention in the third, forcing the Gypsy King to click into his rhythm as he appeared to find the measure of Wilder with increasing frequency.
A beautifully-timed right hand caused bruising around the left eye of Wilder as Fury appeared to be adjusting to his opponent with impressive speed – but in the fourth he was made to stay alert by infrequent waves of wild swinging punches launched by the champion from all angles.
Shots that had previously sailed past Fury’s head by some way began creeping into range during tense exchanges before Wilder caught Fury with a stiff jab that bloodied the lineal champion’s nose.
Momentum slowed in the fifth round as the contest briefly began to resemble something more of a chess match than a fist fight with both men trading jabs.
Another desperate swiping assault by Wilder allowed Fury to demonstrate his footwork once again, darting out of danger like a matador - but he could not make Wilder pay for his misses.
A sustained venture forwards in the sixth reaped the rewards of a few scoring punches for Fury, reddening the eye of Wilder further as the Bronze Bomber again struggled to decipher the 6ft 9ins Rubik’s cube in front of him.
“You won that round, but I’ll be honest, I didn’t like it,” trainer Ben Davison told Fury in the corner, urging his man to stay focused.
Past the halfway stage, Fury appeared comfortably ahead on the scorecards with BT Sport’s Barry Jones ruling the contest 59-55 in his - the toughest tests were yet to come for the British boxer.
Visibly growing in confidence as he bamboozled Wilder, Fury soon found a home for two big straight right hands in a row, stiffening the legs of Wilder momentarily.
Fury’s successes forced the American to go on the attack as he desperately swiped to find a home for his signature finishing strike with little success.
However, Wilder’s impressive jab continued to work, hitting Fury’s face like a ramrod but he failed to build with any momentum on his shot despite, causing minor swelling around Fury’s left eye.
A pulsating ninth round had Fury on the floor out of nowhere, with two glancing blows from Wilder leaving him off-balance and crashing to the canvas.
Looking surprised but unhurt, he entered survival mode as Wilder came flying out of the traps following the count, trying to score his 40th career knockout.
Fury survived, using his experience to tie up Wilder before surging back into the round in the closing stages – but the punch proved to be a turning point in the fight, rejuvenating Wilder with the confidence to continue with his damaging, if one-dimensional, attacks.
The 10th saw Wilder take his foot off the gas, looking to have almost punched himself out following the exploits of the previous round while Fury re-established his rhythm to send a shuddering straight shot down the pipe onto Wilder’s chin.
Showing his underrated durability once again, the American took the shot with little fuss but looked increasingly tired as the fight wore on.
Another flurry at the bell in the 10th left the two men clumsily entangled almost face-to-face - an opportunity Fury seized, taunting Wilder at close range while swinging his tongue around menacingly.
The 11th round saw action at a premium with Wilder looking exhausted while Fury, no doubt aware he was likely to be ahead of the scorecards, kept him at distance, teeing up a tense final round with the American knowing he needed a knockout to retain his belt.
And he nearly managed it, flooring Fury with a heavy combination sent the Gyspy King sprawling to the deck almost certainly unconscious.
Lying flat on his back with his arms spread-eagled, Fury looked down and out – but the 30-year-old showed incredible heart to leap back to his feet in the nick of time as he weathered a late storm to somehow survive to the final bell.
Resulting scores of 115-111 for Wilder, 114-112 for Fury and 113-113 meant the contest was ruled a split-decision draw – a result that failed to satisfy either party.
Speaking immediately after the fight, Fury told BT Sport’s Steve Bunce: “I thought I won the fight. Deontay thought he won the fight. I’ll let the fans be the judge – but we’re both going to go home to our families and enjoy Christmas.”
Wilder, however, claimed: “I think with the two knockdowns, I definitely did enough but the judges saw it differently. At the end of the day, boxing wins. The fans win and that’s what it’s all about. We gave a great promotion, we gave a great fight. We built up the hype and we lived up to the hype and that’s what counts.
“I was really surprised [Fury got up in the 12th] but when you have a warrior heart that’s what you do. You get back up, you keep trying.”
Fury added: “I got caught, this is boxing. You can’t go swimming and not get wet. This is the biggest puncher in the history of the heavyweight division. I love Deontay Wilder, God bless him. He did a fantastic job tonight. I’m a slick boxer, but he landed on me twice. Good luck to him. I thought I won, he thought he won, there aren’t any losers. We’re going to come back and put on a great exhibition again.”
Reaction on Twitter
This #WilderFury judging takes me back to my first fight with @holyfield Just goes to show how hard it is for a Brit to come to America and take someone’s belt even tho that’s what we clearly saw. Big up to @Tyson_Fury who never ceases to amaze me. Hold ur head high! 👊🏾💥— Lennox Lewis (@LennoxLewis) December 2, 2018
A rematch now looks all but certain to happen in 2019 after what many believed to be an unsatisfactory end to an entertaining rivalry in the heavyweight division.
Fury's promoter, Frank Warren, confirmed he would be looking to make a second fight as soon as possible - even hinting at hosting the rematch in a football stadium in the UK.
The 66-year-old said: "It is a draw but everyone knows he won it and we will want to do a rematch. How could a fight like this not be a rematch? It is unfinished business. He won that. He won that fight and everyone knows it.
"In Britain that is an 80,000 job. Vegas will be drooling for this. When was the last time you saw a great fight in USA. Tyson and Deontay have livened up this decision. The best fought the best but it was not the best decision."
Daylight robbery 😡— Frank Bruno MBE (@frankbrunoboxer) December 2, 2018
A draw, I understand (even tho I feel Fury won by a 2 or 3 rds). With 2 knockdowns & round here or there for Wilder and you have a draw in some people’s eyes. But 115-111 for Wilder is terrible, just terrible !! That’s what’s wrong with boxing. Fury’s stock went up !!!!!— Andre S.O.G. Ward (@andreward) December 2, 2018
Elsewhere on the night, two Brits and a former heavyweight world title challenger were in action during an entertaining four-fight undercard.
Britain’s Joe Joyce stepped up to the plate in the first televised bout of the evening, taking on American namesake Joe Hanks seeking to extend his professional record to a perfect 7-0.
The 33-year-old, who served as one of Tyson Fury’s principal training partners during the Gypsy King’s tenure at the Summit Gym in Big Bear, California, absorbed some early warning shots from Hanks, struggling to find his range in the opening minute.
But Joyce, aptly nicknamed the Juggernaut, marched forward relentlessly, finding a home with a spiteful short right hand that buzzed a befuddled Hanks, leaving the 35-year-old dazed on his feet.
It looked as though Joyce had let his opponent off the hook as he backed away momentarily before the 2016 Olympic silver medallist cruised back into range to land a show-stopping left hook that brought the contest to an end in the very first round.
"I had to get up. I couldn't stay down. I had to show that you can get up and nothing is impossible."— Watch Wilder v Fury on BT Sport Box Office 🥊 (@BTSportBoxing) December 2, 2018
Tyson Fury. No words. https://t.co/gfkV5BrF0V
On a night dominated by the heavyweights, Cuban Luis Ortiz stepped into the squared circle to face Travis Kauffman in the second bout of the evening just months on from his thrilling encounter with headline act Deontay Wilder in March.
The 39-year-old was merely moments away from securing a shock victory over Wilder, foiled by the bell in the seventh round with the American WBC champion looking out on his feet following a punishing salvo of combinations from the southpaw.
Taking on Kauffman at the Staples Center tonight, Ortiz showed he was far from done, dominating his American opponent in every round before flooring the 33-year-old in the sixth with a sharp counter-left.
Kauffman recovered but found himself climbing off the canvas once again in the eighth as Ortiz demonstrated his quality with another 10-8 round.
A third knockdown in the 10th and final round was followed up by a brutal onslaught from Ortiz that left the referee no option but to end the contest with barely a minute left on the clock.
British middleweight champion Jason Welborn entered into his fight against unified super-welterweight king Jarrett Hurd as a 10/1 underdog and the Midlands man seized his opportunity with both hands.
Serving as chief support to the main event, Welborn made a positive start in the first round, asking questions of the IBF and WBA 154lb champion to snatch the opening stage, according to BT Sport’s Barry Jones at ringside.
Despite coming down a weight division to fight Hurd, Welborn looked the smaller man by some measure but the brave-hearted Midlander refused to be intimidated, taking the fight to Hurd with impressive gusto.
The fourth round proved the turning point in the fight as an increasingly confident Welborn unloaded combinations on Hurd against the ropes, making the champion look uncomfortable under sustained pressure.
However, 28-year-old Hurt soon decided enough was enough, opting to fight fire with fire and punch his way to safety.
A thrilling back-and-forth ensued in the middle of the ring before Hurd finally caught Welborn with a sickening body shot that crippled the challenger and forced a 10-count to end the fight.
Pay-per-view boxing returns to BT Sport in just a matter of weeks as Josh Warrington defends his IBF featherweight title against former two-weight king Carl Frampton on December 22.
The Leeds Warrior is hoping to upset the odds for the second time this year after snatching the belt from Lee Selby at Elland Road in May, but the resurgent Frampton is confident of restoring his status as champion when the two go toe-to-toe at the Manchester Arena in a festive firecracker you can't afford to miss.
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