Despite two heavy knockdowns, a victory greater than even that over Wladimir Klitschko and after only 14 rounds following over two-and-a-half traumatic years of inactivity was prevented by harsh scores of 115-111, 114-110 and 113-113, despite him impressively outboxing the champion, who retains his title.
Fury was first knocked down in the ninth, and again in the 12th when he appeared out cold, but he returned to his feet and recovered enough to survive to the final bell.
If Wilder’s explosive power already posed a significant threat, the biggest question surrounding Fury’s chances was whether he had truly recovered from that period, in which he admitted to taking cocaine, becoming suicidal and lived to such excess he reached an estimated 27 stone.
The answer to that ultimately became clear when, even as their fight progressed into the dangerous final rounds, he somehow performed with the same sharpness that inspired his memorable victory over Klitschko, even recovering from the second knockdown to end their fight on top.
An affair that was expected to be cagey instead produced 12 thrilling rounds that made a rematch inevitable even before the scores were announced.
They are likely to fight again next spring, when Fury would become the favourite, posing a greater threat to Anthony Joshua’s status as the world’s leading heavyweight.
In front of a 17,698-strong attendance, both fighters entertained from the opening bell when they both threw threatening punches and Wilder landed a hurtful right as they briefly fought toe-to-toe.
Demonstrating his confidence with early periods of showboating, Fury often became the more consistent aggressor and while resisting occasional powerful punches he also made the world’s most dangerous puncher swing and miss.
The champion began to fall short with jabs, and watched Fury comfortably take a left uppercut as he pursued the knockout while his left eye began to swell.
Fury was gradually building a convincing lead into the fight’s second half as he landed with several straight rights, even when Wilder’s occasional successes looked the more hurtful.
The final four were always going to be the most threatening when he tired and his reflexes may have waned, and so it gradually proved when after taking a left-right combination, a right hand to the back of the head knocked him to the canvas.
Fury had twice previously recovered from knockdowns to remain undefeated, and this time the 30-year-old fought back and stuck out his tongue in a sign of his self-belief.
Further success in the 10th round when he landed with both lefts and rights and hurt Wilder, 33, again gave him the momentum when it became increasingly clear the champion was running out of time.
He resiliently then retained his title when, despite his exhaustion, a big right sent Fury tumbling and a further left secured so heavy a knockdown his admirable challenge seemed over.
The Briton instead survived as the tired Wilder struggled to force another attack and the stoppage, meaning an immediate rematch will be next.
It was after the unprecedented high of his victory over Klitschko that Fury fell into the darkest period of his life. This performance showed he has convincingly recovered from that, and he may even again prove the best heavyweight in the world.
Fury’s compatriot and promising fellow heavyweight Joe Joyce had earlier secured his seventh professional victory when he stopped Joe Hanks of America in two minutes and 25 seconds.
There was also a fourth-round defeat for British light-middleweight Jason Welborn, who was stopped by a bodyshot from defending IBF and WBA champion Jarrett Hurd.
Wilder had Fury on the canvas twice, including a spectacular final round knockdown, but was unable to get the knockout victory he had promised to deliver at the Staples Center.
Fury was seemingly done as he lay motionless on the canvas in the 12th after a powerful right from Wilder caught him flush and the American followed it up with a devastating left hook.
But the Englishman somehow got to his feet and beat the count of referee Jack Reiss, and even looked to finish a tiring Wilder himself in the final round, catching him several times.
Fury celebrated wildly at the final bell, while Wilder also gestured that he believed he had won.
In the end it was announced there was a split decision before it was declared a draw. The three judges were divided on the outcome, with one scoring it 115-111 for Wilder, another 114-110 for Fury and the third 113-113.
Tyson Fury could offer at least five good reasons why victory over Deontay Wilder in Los Angeles on Saturday night would rank among the greatest boxing comebacks.
Fury has had to battle a series of out-of-the-ring distractions as he seeks to reclaim the world title he won – and never officially relinquished – against Wladimir Klitschko in 2015.
Here, Press Association Sport takes a look at some of the challenges Fury has had to overcome in order to return to the big time and the quest to become world champion once again.
Fury was embroiled in a two-year drugs case which contributed to the cancellation of a prospective re-match with Klitschko in late 2016. Fury was found to have tested positive for nandrolone but ultimately accepted back-dated two-year bans which enabled him to return to the sport in December 2017.
Fury has fought a much-publicised battle with depression, admitting it escalated out of control in the wake of his famous win over Klitschko. He admitted to binge-drinking and taking cocaine. “I was rich, successful, young, healthy, had a family, fame – everything a man could dream of – but I was still depressed,” said Fury.
Fury caused anger in a series of interviews and video clips in 2015. Widespread calls were made for Fury to be removed from the shortlist for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards. Fury subsequently apologised for his controversial comments.
Year ago today was moving about with tyson, he was 26 stone plus telling me he was coming back, next Saturday he fights for the wbc heavyweight title, he's some man pic.twitter.com/cfT7BF9ZZ1— Papi De La Half Gas Tank (@davidthewhiter1) November 23, 2018
Fury piled on the pounds after beating Klitschko as he faced up to a significant period outside the sport. After his low-key return win over Sefer Seferi in June, Fury revealed he had shed an incredible eight and a half stone to get back into fighting shape – having tipped the scales at 27 and a half stone at his heaviest.
Questions over Fury’s form threatened to slow his quest to regain his world heavyweight title. As expected, he looked less than impressive in his facile win over Seferi, and also failed to put away the lumbering Italian Franceso Pianeta in August – but the Wilder bout proved just too big to turn down.