Posted: Jun 28, 2007 8:54 pm
Hot Dog Champ and Upstart Set for July Fourth Face-Off
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By ANTHONY RAMIREZ
Published: June 28, 2007
In the world of competitive eating, heads ‚Ä" if not stomachs ‚Ä" were spinning yesterday. In a last-minute development, what observers were expecting to be the Bite of the Century seemed off, then on again.
The Nathan‚Äôs Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island on the Fourth of July is the biggest and most famous event on the eating circuit, a one-game World Series of ballyhoo and ingestion. And this year it seemed poised to be especially speedy and spicy.
All eyes again fell on the Babe Ruth of the sport, a potbellyless man from Japan named Takeru Kobayashi, champion for the last six years.
But there was speculation this time about a promising upstart, a college student from California named Joey Chestnut, who this month broke Mr. Kobayashi‚Äôs world record by six hot dogs, or 59 and a bite.
And then there was a twist.
A mysterious ailment, Mr. Kobayashi reported on his Web site this week, has narrowed his jaw so he can open it no wider than a fingertip, and even that with pain.
The Associated Press reported on Tuesday from Tokyo that ‚ÄúThe champ may not be able to chomp.‚ÄĚ
Surely this meant that the Mustard Yellow International Belt, the Stanley Cup of frankfurter-eating, was Mr. Chestnut‚Äôs for the taking; that the Fourth of July, without Mr. Kobayashi, was a mere victory lap?
Or maybe not.
Yesterday, Mr. Kobayashi, 29, made known his intention to board a flight to the United States today and compete for the seventh time, swallowing and chewing through almost clenched teeth.
Was the declaration (and the ailment) psychological warfare? Competitive-eating rope-a-dope? Warrior zen with mustard?
Mr. Chestnut, 23, was abashed.
In a telephone interview yesterday from San Jose, Calif., where he is a civil engineering undergraduate at San Jose State University, Mr. Chestnut, asked about Mr. Kobayashi, replied with a long sigh and several stammers.
‚ÄúAll my friends and family,‚ÄĚ he said, ‚Äúthey‚Äôre all saying, ‚ÄėDon‚Äôt pay any attention to it.‚Äô But it doesn‚Äôt make sense. Why would anybody say, ‚ÄėOh I‚Äôm going to compete, but I‚Äôm hurt‚Äô?‚ÄĚ Mr. Chestnut sighed again and thought out loud: ‚ÄúHe‚Äôs never gone into it as an underdog.‚ÄĚ
Mr. Kobayashi, he said, ‚Äúcould come to the Fourth of July with his jaws wired shut, and I‚Äôm sure he could still do all right; he‚Äôs that good of an eater.‚ÄĚ
Other competitive eaters yesterday also wondered what was going on, but seemed to lean, if slightly, to the psychological warfare theory.
Arturo Rios Jr., 30, of Long Branch, N.J., who won yesterday‚Äôs qualifying round for the July Fourth contest, seemed to play down Mr. Kobayashi‚Äôs calamity, which some news reports described as ‚Äújaw arthritis.‚ÄĚ
Mr. Rios, a truck driver for The Daily News, said after he won the regional competition, ‚ÄúHe‚Äôll show up.‚ÄĚ
Mr. Rios ate 27 ¬Ĺ hot dogs in 12 minutes, or one hot dog every 26 seconds.
He expressed admiration for both Mr. Kobayashi, who last year ate 53 ¬ĺ hot dogs, or one every 13 or so seconds, and Mr. Chestnut, who ate 59 ¬Ĺ hot dogs this month, or one every 12 or so seconds.
‚ÄúThey‚Äôre amazing eaters,‚ÄĚ Mr. Rios said.
The two leading competitors seem to have little in common. At 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, Mr. Chestnut is taller and heavier than Mr. Kobayashi, who is 5-foot-6 and last weighed in at 160 pounds.
But Mr. Chestnut said the two were actually quite similar.
Mr. Kobayashi is a champion, he said, ‚Äúbecause he‚Äôs healthy and controls his calorie intake.‚ÄĚ
Mr. Chestnut ‚Ä" whose weight has fallen to 215 pounds from 240 during his two years of competing in eating contests ‚Ä" controls his intake with minimum-calorie meal-replacement shakes when he is not competing. The shakes are as important psychologically as they are physically, he said.
‚ÄúI tell myself that there‚Äôs nothing solid inside of me,‚ÄĚ he said, ‚Äúso I can put 14 pounds of food inside. It‚Äôs a mental thing, to be able to convince your body that it can do this.‚ÄĚ He added, ‚ÄúMy body says, ‚ÄėHey, I‚Äôm hungry.‚Äô There‚Äôs a reason to eat this much food.‚ÄĚ
In his short career, Mr. Chestnut has won more than $112,000 in prize money eating a dizzying variety of food, including deep-fried asparagus, waffles, chicken wings and Krystal Burgers (similar to White Castle burgers). Only crab cakes have made him throw up, he said, even though he loves crab.
And his favorite food of all? His mother‚Äôs home cooking, especially the chicken parmigiana.