The Most Dominant Athlete in a Century? A Competitive Eater

By Adam Felder

Let’s not pretend there’s any drama here: Joey Chestnut is going to win the Nathan’s Hot Dog Contest this July 4. He’s won every time since 2007. Chestnut hasn’t had a serious challenge in years, and with Takeru Kobayashi, the previous record-holder, banned from competition, 2014 should be no different. For all the intrigue that emcee George Shea tries to inject into things, the only real questions are:

  • Will Chestnut break his own record (as he’s done in 2007, 2009, and 2013)?
  • Just how far back will the second-place finisher be?

While he doesn’t hold every food record within Major League Eating, Chestnut dominates the hot-dog contest, and that’s really all that matters. By orders of magnitude, July 4 is the most important day in competitive eating, and the hot dog is the most important event. No other MLE competition gets two-million viewers on ESPN (or aired at all, for that matter). No other event confers the celebrity status and endorsement money that allows its winner to be one of the few eaters who doesn’t need to supplement their income with mainstream jobs.

Chestnut’s reign is remarkable. Even more remarkable is that he’s about to win his eighth straight contest, and at age 30, shows no sign of slowing down—indeed, if last year is any indication, he may not have reached his peak.

It’s difficult to understate just how unusual this is within the realm of athletic (and admittedly, I’m using the term loosely here, but I think we can all agree there’s a significant physical component involved in competitive eating) competition. How unusual?

When Chestnut wins on Friday, it’ll likely be the first time in a century that an athletic competitor leads his league in a meaningful statistic for eight years in a row.

For whatever reason—a natural decline with age, suspension, fluke seasons by a competitor, injury, wartime service, premature retirement—eight seems to be something of a magic number when it comes to dominance within a sport. Historically, the most dominant players tend to get to seven and then suffer some calamity that keeps them from number eight.

Babe Ruth, for example, led the league in home runs for 12 out of 14 seasons between 1918 and 1931. In 1922, he only appeared in 110 games, having entered the season serving a suspension, and fell just short of the title. Ruth could have had a separate streak between 1923 and 1931, but a season-long “stomach ache” (it was likely a well-hidden case of venereal disease) limited him to only 98 games in 1925. A healed Ruth continued his assault on the record books in 1926, but the damage to his streak was already done.

The eight-year-wall isn’t limited to sluggers. Rickey Henderson led his league in steals for 11 out of 12 years, but a hamstring injury in 1987 kept the streak capped at seven. Come 1988, Henderson resumed his top standing as if the aberrant year never happened. (As an aside, Luis Aparicio led MLB’s American League in steals for nine straight seasons in the 1950s and 1960s, but was not the MLB leader during the same period.)

Torn hamstrings and venereal disease not enough for you? Consider the case of Ted Williams, arguably the greatest hitter of all time. Williams led the league in a variety of important offensive categories before 1943 and after 1946. The streak-breaking event in the interim, of course, is his service in World War II.

It gets weirder. Michael Jordan led the NBA in scoring for seven straight seasons between the 86-87 and 92-93 seasons. In the prime of his career, he retired, citing exhaustion and stress, not the least of which stemmed from his father’s murder the previous summer. Yet after an uninspiring season as a minor league baseball player, Jordan returned to the NBA and led the league in scoring for three more seasons. Jordan’s predecessor as greatest-of-all-time, Wilt Chamberlain? He also only had seven straight.

The NFL hardly warrants checking, as the careers of so many talented players get derailed by injury. A four year span as leader in a category is rare, to say nothing of Chestnut’s eight.

One has a bit more success when looking at the NHL. Wayne Gretzky led the league in points for eight straight seasons between 1979-80 and 1986-87, but the first season of that streak was actually a tie for the league lead; Gretzky was not the uncontested champion that year. If you count assists, both Gretzky and the NBA’s John Stockton reached at least eight seasons in their respective sports. If you prefer a statistic that’s a bit more “direct”—after all, Gretzky and Stockton’s assists only counted when their Hall of Fame supporting casts scored—then you’ll need to keep looking.

There’s no help found outside the big four sports, either. In tennis, consecutive Grand Slam titles caps at six.  The same holds true for golf—neither Jack Nicklaus nor Tiger Woods ever pulled off eight consecutive wins. Even if you include his pre-ban wins, Lance Armstrong only got to seven Tour de France victories before his retirement. Olympic wins are inherently impossible—individual gold in eight consecutive games requires 28 years of athletic peak, and humans simply are not built for such longevity.

Quite simply, it’s very difficult to lead your league in anything meaningful for eight straight seasons. Assuming you don’t count assists because they rely on another actor to complete scoring, you might have to go back as far as 1912, when Walter Johnson began his first of eight straight seasons leading the American League in strikeouts.

Try it for yourself. See if you can find a meaningful individual record lasting eight seasons or more—in any sport. Here’s baseball, football, basketball, and hockey, as a start. It’s a much harder task than one might think, and yet Chestnut stands poised to set just such a record—and then some.

What does this mean for Joey Chestnut? Is eight straight hot-dog titles a sign of his greatness, or a sign that competitive eating is still too much of a niche activity to attract meaningful competitors into Major League Eating? One could argue it’s the former. After all, the NHL had but six teams in the entire league for a quarter century, and even with such a small talent pool, no single player experienced Chestnut’s run of dominance.

Conversely, as alluded to in my colleague Gabe Muller’s recent article, very few competitive eaters can dedicate themselves to full-time eating; the money simply isn’t there. One could just as easily argue that Chestnut’s dominance is over a league of part-timers who have neither the time nor resources to mount a meaningful challenge. This is likely another reason why Kobayashi’s contract dispute and subsequent ban is so detrimental to the league.

He’s by no means the best athlete in the world, but he is the most dominant within his sport, and such dominance is exceedingly rare. However you classify competitive eating, there’s no denying that Joey Chestnut is its king, and we’re witnessing an historic reign.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/07/the-most-dominant-athlete-in-a-century-a-competitive-eater/373807/