At Wing Bowl XX, Two Competitive Eaters' Legacies Are on the Line

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Takeru Kobayashi and Bill "El Wingador" Simmons will face each other at Philadelphia's annual wing-eating competition.

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Al Morganti knows the Wing Bowl has gotten out of hand. When it comes to a party, no competitive-eating event does it quite like the annual chicken wing-eating contest, a 6 a.m. Mardi Gras-type atmosphere full of beer, bare breasts, big personalities, and about 3,000 Buffalo wings. It's an unofficial holiday for South Philly where those who've tailgated all night in the Wells Fargo Center parking lot gather—and sell out—the arena the Friday before the Big Game.

"No one has the carnival we have," says Morganti, the host of Sports Radio WIP's "The Morning Show" and founder of the Wing Bowl, which is happening for the 20th year in a row this Friday.

"It's one of the politically incorrect events that you'd be correct to attend. There's no redeeming social value to it and we don't pretend that there is. You're not going to meet afterwards and discuss the lessons you learn in life."

The Wing Bowl's began as a barroom wing-eating contest at a local Philadelphia hotel, an excuse to fill the void of the Eagles not making the Super Bowl in 1993. Since then, Morganti and SportsRadio WIP have helped turn Wing Bowl into one of the preeminent events in competitive eating. "When you do morning radio, there's a certain time of the day or certain period of the year where most men just want to go back to the seventh grade," he says. "Fortunately for us, we kind of live in the seventh grade, so we can go back to junior high and the girls come back to life and everybody's coming out to [the Wells Fargo Center] hoping not having to go to detention at noon."

You couldn't make up the ways this year's competitors made it into Wing Bowl XX. One veteran ate four pounds of lasagna in five minutes. Another vet ate 6 feet, 9 inches of sushi off Wingettes, the bikini-clad assistants who escort the Wing Bowl competitors to the stage. One rookie scarfed two pounds of pasta and one pound of rabbit (yes, rabbit) in 10 minutes. Another rookie, the only female in the competition, standing all of 5-feet tall, ate 10 feet of sausage in under five minutes. That's just an appetizer. They're all up against the three-time defending champion, Jonathan "Super" Squibb, a 20-something New Jersey accountant coming off a record-breaking performance last year.

And then there's the icon and the legend. One will be reintroducing himself to a major competitive eating competition, looking for a win in his first Wing Bowl. The other will say goodbye to the event that made him famous, hoping to bring home his sixth Wing Bowl title. They're friends and admire one another, but not when the competition is underway, not when parts of their legacies are on the line.

TAKERU KOBAYASHI CAN'T STOP taking pictures of his food. Shortly after entering Petite Abeille on a rainy Friday morning in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, Kobayashi begins snapping photos of the Belgian restaurant, his latte, our mozzarella and tomato sandwiches, and the three baskets of French fries on the table. Snap, snap. Snap, snap. He is observant of the mostly-empty restaurant, his parted, shaggy jet-black hair covering his right eyebrow, still looking like a teen idol. "When he eats, he's not trying to eat a lot of it," says Maggie James, his publicist. "He's the first person to make sure we're going to a place with good ambiance, making sure we're trying something new. He's so detailed about how the food is good and how it's not good. He could have been a food critic."

Just like that, we're reminded of the artistry and the subtlety of Kobayashi, the methodical devourer of food who helped take competitive eating to new heights thanks in part to his six consecutive titles at the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest, becoming the face of the sport and a national hero in Japan in the process. And subtlety can be elusive when you hold or have held world-eating records for hot dogs, Twinkies, meatballs, pasta, and hamburgers.

But things are a little different now. At 33, he is still considered one of the world's premier competitive eaters, this despite not participating in a sanctioned International Federation of Competitive Eating event in about two years as a result of a contract dispute. He's still just as impressive as any eater, but some of the luster has come off, due in part to the rise of Joey Chestnut as the face of the Nathan's competition and Kobayashi staying out of the bigger competitive eating events, opting to try to develop and organize smaller, upstart competitions. This Kobayashi sitting in front of me is at peace with himself and his place in the sport, knowing he now has control of his career.

"To work with freedom is completely different," he says. "I feel happy every morning I get up and to do this now. It just feels good. It feels right."

As a 23-year-old college student at Yokkaichi University, a private school in Yokkaichi, Japan, Kobayashi and his friends went to a local curry chain in 2001. When they arrived at the restaurant, there was a challenge menu that dared anyone to eat 1,300 grams, or almost three pounds, of curry rice. By the time Kobayashi finished the challenge, he had eaten around 5,100 grams of curry rice, equaling more than 11 pounds, almost four times the amount of the stated challenge. After dominating two television challenge shows in Japan, he competed in his first Nathan's competition later that year, a contest he would go on to win six consecutive times. His success was all the more impressive considering his relatively small size: He's just 5-foot-8, 128 pounds. But he was bested by Chestnut for three consecutive years before the contract dispute. Since his 2010 arrest at the Nathan's competition for attempting to charge the stage, he has kept a relatively low profile, while still doing other events such as the July 4th exhibition he put on at a New York rooftop bar that ran simultaneously against the Nathan's competition. (He ate 69 at the event, a personal best.)

"No one will ever see me on the Coney Island stage again," he tells me.

"That stage was something that was a part of him and now he's doing new things," James says for him. "That's a chapter of his life that is closed."

Much is expected of Kobayashi, and he knows it. He also understands the challenges going into his first Wing Bowl. His arthritic jaw still bothers him when he trains too hard. Wing Bowl will be the longest competition he's been in since his 2007 injury. Until this week, he hasn't had a chance to train with the actual wings to be used in the competition. And there's still a curiosity of seeing if Kobayashi will lose. Yet he's not nervous or anxious but instead excited and ambitious about what he can do in Philadelphia.

"I definitely want to eat 300," he says. "The record is 255. I certainly want to go to 300, no matter what." He adds later: "I know that Philadelphia is the place where they wrote the Declaration of Independence, and realizing that and reading history about that made me feel like that's the next step. I kind of felt like it was something I needed to do."

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Timothy Bella is a journalist living in New York City.

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