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.