Horsemen of the Esophagus

Among the super-gluttons, on the front lines of competitive eating

The key benchmark of greatness in competitive eating, akin to rolling a 300 game in bowling or scoring under par in golf, is to eat twenty Nathan’s hot dogs in twelve minutes. This is called “doing the deuce.” By the time an eater has done the deuce, he or she has consumed 4.4 pounds of solid food and a few pounds of water, has taken in 6,180 calories, 403 grams of fat, and almost 14 grams of sodium, and is ready to lie down someplace air-conditioned, close to a toilet.

Until 2001 the world record in the Nathan’s Famous hot-dog contest had hovered in the low to mid-twenties. On July 3, the day before the 2001 contest, the champs of the American gurgitator corps—Charles Hardy, Ed Jarvis, Coondog O’Karma—preened outside New York’s City Hall, waiting for the contest’s traditional weigh-in ceremony to begin. Suddenly there was a hubbub, heads whipsawing, TV cameras twirling. Some people assumed it was the mayor and his entourage.

Nope. The Japanese.

The Japanese had won the contest for three of the past four years. They emerged from an unseen vehicle and walked toward the Americans. There were two Japanese eaters this year. The first was Kazutoyo Arai, who had won last year’s contest with twenty-five and one-eighth hot dogs, a new world record. Arai—nicknamed the Rabbit for the way he took mincing bites and bobbed his head while eating—was a short, gentle man with shiny jet-black hair parted down the exact middle. He weighed a hundred pounds exactly. The press swarmed him.

Nobody paid any attention to the second Japanese contestant, a cute little Japanese kid with short, spiky blond hair and a white T-shirt and maroon running shorts. This was Kobayashi, who would become known on the circuit simply as Koby. Twenty-three years old. A kid, really. At least one of the American eaters thought Koby was the Rabbit’s son. Koby’s name hadn’t been mentioned in the City of New York’s press release. The only thing the American eaters knew for sure was that Koby had beaten the Rabbit in Japan, and that his nickname was the Prince. The Americans had heard rumors, though. Don Lerman had heard that Koby had eaten seventy-five hot dogs, but he imagined the dogs were little cocktail franks.

The next day, the Fourth of July, in a slight rain, about 500 people gathered for the contest at Surf and Stillwell avenues, on Coney Island, in front of the original Nathan’s Famous stand. A stage had been erected with a long table and a tarp-like backdrop, decorated with blue-and-yellow Nathan’s signage and balloons. The crowd was a patchwork of umbrellas. The dozens of cameramen on the scene, including a guy from CNN, had wrapped their equipment with trash bags. Some spectators held signs that had been passed out by IFOCE officials to give the appearance of actual eating fandom.

The contest had come a long way in a very short time. Just eight years earlier, it was so small that the Nathan’s CEO, Wayne Norbitz, had had to solicit passersby on contest day to be contestants. But under George Shea the contest had become a highly choreographed affair. There was a production script. There were informal run-throughs the morning of the contest. “Everything is kind of rehearsed,” I was told by Mike “The Scholar” DeVito, the 1990, 1993, and 1994 Nathan’s champion and the federation’s then-commissioner. In 2001, DeVito was fulfilling his commissioner’s duty to act as the “head judge,” the one who relays hot-dog totals from the judges, who squat in front of the tables, to the card girls (“Bunnettes”), who display the totals on flippable blue cards they hold high above their heads, so audience members can keep track of the leaders.

Mike DeVito and George Shea already knew approximately how many hot dogs the eaters would eat that day. The top Americans—Booker, Lerman, Hardy, and Jarvis—would all come in at around twenty. The Rabbit would eat twenty-five. Maybe, if it was a really rare and special day, someone would make it to thirty.

At noon Shea kicked off the show by introducing the eaters one by one. Ed Jarvis wore an American flag, Hungry Charles pumped his fists, Coondog ripped his shirt and glared at the audience with a mean grin. Then the Japanese: Koby walked out first, wearing a white headband that read TV TOKYO and made his ears stick out. The Rabbit, as the reigning champ, came out last and hoisted the championship Mustard Yellow Belt—a cheap prop glued with rhinestones—high above his head.

In the seconds before the countdown, Arai closed his eyes like he was meditating. Koby arranged his five large yellow cups of water. The crowd chanted. IFOCE officials brought each eater two paper plates of five hot dogs each. Arai slapped both of his cheeks, hard.

“Join me please,” Shea announced. “Ten! Nine! Eight! Seven! Six! Five! Four! Three! Two! One! Ohhhhhh! … We’re here to see who’s going to take home this bout … ”

In a twelve-minute eating contest you don’t get a feel for the front-runners until near the end. Everybody knows that it’s in the final minutes that the outcome is determined.

But not on this historic day. After only three minutes and twenty-four seconds, the little Japanese kid with the jutting ears and cute spiky hair had finished twenty-two hot dogs. He had almost broken the world record—and he still had close to nine minutes left to go.

Don Lerman was one of the first to realize something was amiss. “All of a sudden,” he recalled, “I’ve got eight and the Japanese guy’s got fifteen. And when you hear that you say to yourself, in your mind, Should I put my body through this trauma, you know, this workout, if I can’t catch him?

Perhaps the next eater to notice was Steve “The Appetite” Addicks, a locomotive mechanic from Baltimore. Addicks was stationed directly to Koby’s left. In photos from that day Addicks is pictured with his mouth open, spilling half-chewed dog meat, head cranked toward Kobayashi with a look of pure confusion. Koby was eating his hot dogs with an inhuman ease. While the Rabbit kept the dog and bun together as an intact unit, dunking the whole thing and stuffing it, Koby was separating the dog from the bun. What’s more, he was breaking each dog in half, then eating both halves at the same time, after which he dunked and ate the bun. Koby’s judge was Gersh Kuntzman, the New York Post reporter. He and other reporters would later dub Koby’s eating style the Solomon Method.

“I was in awe,” Steve Addicks said. “It was amazing. I was standing next to something that—it’s like, ah, I don’t know—it was almost a religious experience, you know? Something that I was so close to see, that very few people will ever be able to witness, as far as the magnitude of what it meant to me as an eater. It was just like”—he made a whoosh sound—“whoa … I’m sitting there watching a miracle.”

“Oh my God, ladies and gentlemen!” George Shea shouted. “TWENTY-TWO hot dogs and buns!”

Koby wasn’t flagging. The Rabbit was a distant second, with fourteen hot dogs, and the rest of the eaters were in single digits.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Shea said, “Kobayashi, Takeru Kobayashi of Japan, has broken the American record—”

“And the world record!” someone else added.

“—in under five minutes.”

On the right end of the table, Coondog was well on his way to twenty hot dogs. He thought all the cheering was for him. Then his counter told him, “The little Japanese kid just finished twenty-seven.”

“No fuckin’ way,” Coondog said.

“Way,” the counter said.

Coondog looked over at Koby. He watched him for a few seconds, then threw one of his hot dogs into the crowd and put down his buns. So did Steve Addicks.

A Japanese TV host narrating the contest screamed:

“KOOOBAYYYAAASHIIIIIII!!!!!!!”

Koby reached twenty-nine.

Shea’s face had gone slack. A carny barker as cynical and wised-up as they come, Shea looked at Kobayashi and just faintly shook his head. The man who could spray great loquacious jets of ballyhoo at audiences for twenty minutes at a time without breaking a sweat or dangling a participle was speechless.

Shea turned away from Koby and looked into the crowd.

“One away,” he said.

One away from the magic number.

A Bunnette, having run out of flippable cards, held up a yellow sheet bearing the number 30.

There was a roar.

In the pit, Gersh Kuntzman ran out of numbers. He started furiously writing Koby’s totals on the backs of yellow sheets with a ball-point pen. Thirty-four. Thirty-six.

The crowd chanted, “For-ty! For-ty! For-ty!”

Koby kept going, and Kuntzman kept scribbling. Forty-six. Forty-seven.

“KOOOBAYYYAAASHIIIIIII!!!!!!!”

“Ladies and gentlemen, count down with me if you will! Ten! Nine! Eight! Seven! Six!”

“KOOOBAYYYAAASHIIIIIII!!!!!!!”

“Five! Four! Three! Two!”

“KOOOBAYYYAAASHIIIIIII!!!!!!!”

“One!”

On the back of a yellow piece of paper, held high above the head of the victorious Takeru Kobayashi, was a scrawled number representing his final total.

50.

“Yo sha!” Koby yelled. (“All right!”)

The deejay put on an upbeat song, and Shea announced the winners.

In third place, with twenty-three hot dogs, was Charles Hardy, who, as the top American, draped himself with the Stars and Stripes. He was bent over the table, in obvious pain. In second was the Rabbit, with thirty-one hot dogs—six more than his prior world record, and on any other day an astounding total.

But it was Koby who now held aloft a giant gold trophy and the Mustard Yellow Belt. He grinned and grinned. He appeared energetic, bouncy, like he could run a marathon. His countrymen surrounded him, congratulating him in Japanese.

“You’re a beast!” the Rabbit said.

“Aren’t you happy?” the Japanese TV host asked.

“Oh,” Koby said, “I’m happy.”

“You had fifty. But how do you feel?”

“I can keep going.”

Gersh Kuntzman rushed to the phone to call in the results to the New York Post city desk. Before placing the call, he brainstormed analogies that might impress his editors. This was maybe like Secretariat’s winning the Belmont by thirty-one lengths. Or a rookie shortstop’s breaking Barry Bonds’s home-run record by a hundred.

Gersh dialed and demanded space on the front page. Koby’s victory, he said, was not only a watershed moment in competitive eating. It was a singular achievement in all of sports history.

The Post desk put him on hold.

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