Six-time world hot-dog-eating champion Takeru Kobayashi has been injured and may not compete in next week’s 90th annual competition at Nathan’s in Coney Island.
The Great Bun, as he is known to his fans, is seeing medical specialists in Tokyo this week in hopes of curing a mysterious case of stiff jaw that some scribes (OK, this scribe) is calling “jawthritis.”
Speculation immediately arose that Kobayashi’s “injury” was merely psychosomatic — a possibility, given that his world record was smashed earlier this month by American challenger Joey Chestnut, who ate 59-1/2 hot dogs and buns, nearly six more than Kobayashi’s personal best.
Chestnut is set to compete on July 4 — setting the stage for a battle of the ages.
But is Kobayashi ducking the fight? The legendary frank-ophile did not respond to a frantic e-mail from The Brooklyn Paper, but he did explain the situation on his own Web site, Occupational Hazard.
“My jaw refused to fight any more,” said the 29-year-old phenomenon, describing a jaw that can only open as wide as a fingertip — not wide enough for the mashing and mawing that takes place every July 4.
He said the injury took place because he was pushing himself so hard during training.
“I feel ashamed that I couldn’t notice the alarm bells set off by my own body,” Kobayashi said. “But with the goal to win another title with a new record, I couldn’t stop my training so close to the competition. I was continuing my training and bearing with the pain, but finally I destroyed my jaw.”
And that saddened him: “I want to be the pride of my mother.”
International Federation of Competitive Eating Chairman George Shea didn’t know what to make of the stunning news.
“He’s listed as day-to-day with jaw pain,” Shea said. “I spoke to him [Tuesday night] and he legitimately has an issue with his jaw. He is seeing a specialist in Tokyo. He is rehabbing. But he told me one thing: He intends to compete. He has the heart of a lion. Talking to him made me sort of well up, like when you see a scene in a movie where the father saves the kid at the last second. I was getting goose-bumps.”
As a result, Shea said there is no way Kobayashi is trying to duck Chestnut.
“Knowing the kind of champion he is — and we’re talking about the man who ate 57 pan-seared cow brains in 15 minutes — I can say that he is dying to get healthy so he can face Joey Chestnut.”
Chestnut is the brightest newcomer to hit the competitive eating world since Hirofumi Nakajima — a diminutive furniture delivery man from Kofu — stunned the world by defeating then-world champ Ed “The Maspeth Monster” Krachie in 1999, a win that began a decade-long era of Japanese domination of the sport.
Chestnut ended that domination with his record-setting 59-1/2 HDB performance at that regional qualifying contest in Tempe, but some worry that he has shown his stomach too early, giving Kobayashi a full month to train even harder.
“I can’t get into all the mind games,” Chestnut said by cellphone from his secret training facility near San Jose. “This ‘injury’ could just be him trying to get in my head.”
Chestnut said he expects Kobayashi to eat 62 hot dogs on July 4 — and he also expects that he’ll do the champion one or two better.
“I can’t give myself the luxury of thinking he’s actually hurt,” Chestnut said, “because I don’t want to let up on my own training.”
Shea said the sport of competitive eating has never seen anything as shocking and as “monumental” as such a late-season injury that could force the holder of the coveted Mustard-Yellow International Belt to drop out of the contest.
“It’s like Secretariat having to drop out of the Belmont because of a fever,” Shea said. “And what’s worse, Chestnut fans want Kobayashi to be fully healthy because they think their man could legitimately beat him. So if Koby is playing hurt, it diminishes what they believe will be a Chestnut triumph.”
In his exclusive interview with The Brooklyn Paper, Chestnut disagreed. “If I go out there and break my own world record, no matter how many Kobayashi eats, it’s only fair to say that I would have beaten him even if he was 100 percent healthy,” he said.
In an unrelated injury story, the 7-foot-6 Indian giant, P. Theyagarjan, the chicken tika-masala-eating champion, has fallen and injured his foot.
“It really is true what they say: the bigger they are, the harder they fall,” Shea said. “He’s also day-to-day.”
The 90th annual Nathan’s Hot Dog-eating Championship begins at noon on July 4 at Nathan’s (corner of Stillwell and Surf avenues in Coney Island), though crowds begin gathering much earlier. The contesdt is also broadcast live on ESPN and on WABC radio, which will feature Brooklyn Paper Editor Gersh Kuntzman doing color commentary from the table of champions.