This could be the year when I get to see a grown Japanese man cry.
That’s right, sports fans, it all grills down to this: Joey Chestnut — a newcomer who ate 50 hot dogs and buns in May — is poised and ready to defeat the greatest athlete of all time, five-time world hot-dog–eating champ Takeru Kobayashi, on July 4 at Coney Island.
Can Chestnut — who never even competed in the Nathan’s contest until last year, when he ate a mere 32 hot dogs and buns — beat Kobayashi, whose personal best is more than 20 HDBs better?
In a word, yes.
“I do feel I’m getting stronger,” Chestnut told The Brooklyn Angle in an exclusive interview (“exclusive” because I once stole his cellphone number off my caller ID, “interview” because he picked up the phone).
Who am I to make such an outlandish claim that Chestnut can beat Kobayashi? This columnist certainly needs no introduction among the frankagencia, who know me as “The Bard of Bull,” “The Homer of the Hot Dog,” and, more recently, “The Breslin of the Bowel.”
But you newbies should know that for the past five years, I have sat inches below Kobayashi as he masticated his way into history.
It’s a dirty job — no, it’s a really dirty job — but somebody has to crouch below the table of champions to verify that Kobayashi is indeed downing all those hot dogs and all those buns.
And before Kobayashi, it was Kazutoyo “The Rabbit” Arai. And before him, Steve “Ralph” Keiner. And before him, Hirofumi “The Tokyo Terror” Nakajima. And before him, Ed “The Maspeth Monster” Krachie.
Covering myself in such glory — and spit, bun, bits of mystery meat and sweat — I know a bona-fide phenom when I see one. Chestnut is the real deal.
And there are at least three factors playing in his favor next week:
1. Age before booty: At 27, Kobayashi is practically ancient by competitive-eating standards. By age 25, Frank “Hollywood” Dellarosa — unforgettable after his then-record-setting “21 in ’91” performance — had already moved to LaLa Land for his staring role in “Kiss Me, Guido” (he played one of the guidos). Hirofumi “The Tokyo Terror” Nakajima — who did more for the sport of competitive eating than anyone since the Roman gladiator Vomitus Minimus — was finished in his mid-20s.
As former champion Ed “The Maspeth Monster” Krachie used to say, “I just want one more contest. Just one more,” like a chain-smoking housewife at a slot machine thinking her luck is going to change with every next quarter. It never did.
At 22, Chestnut is the same age as Kobayashi when he first came to Coney Island, a mere wisp of a man with an eating resume as thin as his torso — and proceeded to down 50 HDBs.
2. The fear factor: Kobayashi has never been challenged. In fact, no one has even come within a dozen HDBs of beating him. A dozen.
But this time, Kobayashi is looking fear in the face — not the temporary fear that comes from eating a few pounds of pan-seared cow brains or downing bowl after bowl of mayonnaise. This time, Kobayashi is facing a challenger who could actually beat him.
“I think that’s the biggest thing,” Chestnut said. “He’s never been pushed before.”
Chestnut knows how to do that, pushing Kobayashi for seven minutes of the eight-minute Krystal hamburger-eating competition recently. True, Kobayashi munched ahead in the last few seconds to pluck victory from the jaws of defeat, but he was scared. I saw it in his Adam’s apple.
3. Fire in the belly: Kobayashi has won five times. It’s unprecedented. It’s astounding. It’s the equivalent of the Mets winning the World Series — every year for the next decade.
It’s also going to end. Kobayashi knows it. The fans know it. On some level, even the hot dogs know it.