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

"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."

He demonstrates his technique, moving the French fry baskets to show me what goes through his mind as he decides which hypothetical wing he was going to eat first, what angle he was going to pick it up from, which wing he was going to have next, if the angle would be different on that one, and over and over again. He dips his hand into his glass of water to show that he needs his water at a certain height. He's cerebral, even professorial as he explains it to James for me. It's a balance that he says he got from his father, Yasouo, a historian at Japan's first Buddhist temple, and his late mother, Toshiko, who died about five years ago.

Wing Bowl won't be a completely new experience for Kobayashi—he ate a cheesesteak in 24 seconds at last year's halftime show - he admits that he doesn't fully grasp the enormity of this year's event. That is starting to change.

"I don't really feel nervous or anything, but now that you're saying it to me, it's kind of making me excited," he says. "I haven't had a moment to get excited."

"He's thanking you for that," James says.

SHORTLY AFTER CROSSING OVER the Walt Whitman Bridge, the El Wingador-mobile pulls up to Vitale's Bistro in nearby Gloucester, N.J. Walking out of the car, Bill Simmons—not to be confused with the ESPN personality—is an intimidating figure at 6-foot-5, 330 pounds, dressed in a red T-shirt from a South Jersey pub and metal blue cargo shorts. He says to me that it will be a light lunch today. "I do dress better than this," he tells me, nodding his bleach-blonde hair, "but it's Saturday." He again insists that it's going to be a light lunch. Walking inside the dimly lit Italian restaurant and bar, several sets of eyes turn to El Wingador as he makes conversation with the bartender, making time for each person who passes by to wish the local legend good luck; one man brings over his son to remind Simmons how he once tossed his boy a bandanna at an event. Soon, he becomes the main attraction.

"I'm not nobody's hero," he turns to me before ordering the "light lunch," which consists of a Caesar salad, a chicken cheesesteak with French fries, and mussels marinara over a heap of linguine. "It's just an eating disorder and I'm really good at it."

El Wingador has one more Wing Bowl in him and he knows it. He couldn't step away after last year's one-wing loss to Squibb, not after he ate 254 wings, the second most in the history of the competition. One more run, that's what he needs.

"I got a family I have to worry about," he says. "I always go to the edge."

Simmons' story remains the stuff of local folklore once reserved for fictional boxers. Coming from a humble Woodbury Heights, N.J. home—his father a truck driver for a food services company for 35 years, his mother a homemaker—Simmons was a tall, skinny kid who loved baseball and tried out for the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves when he was 19. He also had a penchant for skipping school—he ditched class and baseball practice on the day that then-Temple baseball coach James "Skip" Wilson was supposedly going to offer him a full ride. Soon thereafter, he got his first wife pregnant, putting baseball and college ambitions on hold indefinitely. Simmons would follow his father's path, working as a truck driver for almost 19 years, driving tractor-trailers, dump trucks, cranes, anything.

Things would change. In January of 1999, Simmons' friend, Kevin "Heavy Keavy" O'Donnell, was bowing out of Wing Bowl after winning it twice. Organizers wanted him to find a replacement. Enter Simmons, a guy who ate chicken every day of his life and ate it fast, thanks in part to the dinners he would crush as a kid when all he wanted to do was go outside and play sports. He would go on to redefine the event, winning five of the next seven Wing Bowls, cementing his place in Wing Bowl and Philly lore.

"He's become sort of a local face of the event and maybe the face of the event," Morganti says. "I really think the fact he's a local guy has meant a lot."

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Timothy Bella is a journalist living in New York City.

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