Joey Chestnut, the greatest eater in modern history and, perhaps of all time, outdid even himself on July 4 at Coney Island, tying former six-time world champ Takeru Kobayashi with 59 hot dogs and buns in the 10-minute contest — and then shoving down five more HDBs in an unprecedented one-on-one stuff-your-faceoff to beat Kobayashi by mere seconds.
It is not an overstatement to say that there has never been such a dramatic duel in the history of sport.
It almost never happened. Chestnut, the returning champion, jumped to an early lead in regulation, and many believed that Kobayashi’s well-documented jawthritis would, as this reporter predicted in The Brooklyn Paper on Thursday, make him unable to keep up with the champ.
But Kobayashi poured it on and caught up, at one point grabbing bunches of hot dogs out of their buns, shoving them into his mouth, compressing the remaining dough into what can only be called a “bun ball,” dunking them in hot water, and eating the soggy mess like an apple.
“We’re calling that ‘Nagoya style,’ in honor of Kobayashi’s hometown,” said George Shea, the event’s irrepressible master of ceremonies.
At the end of regulation, judges realized that history had been made: never had there been a tie in the 92 or so years of the contest.
Confusion rained down on the judges like the bits of spittle, gristle and bun that had cascaded on them only minutes earlier (and I have the referee shirt to prove it).
But like George Washington 232 years before him, Shea remained an oasis of calm, of gustatory gravitas, in that tumultuous moment.
“Gentlemen, the rules are quite clear,” he bellowed! “Each eater will be given five hot dogs and buns and the first to down them all is our new champion!”
Chestnut, spent from just devouring 18,231 calories, 1,180 grams of fat and 40,356 milligrams of sodium in 10 minutes, looked like he was going to cry. Kobayashi hopped around on both legs, hoping to keep the roiling mass in his gut from going north. Neither looked ready for the task ahead.
The whistle blew, and Kobayashi jumped to a lead. In fact, he quickly downed all five of his dogs, and only needed to consume the bun ball to secure his place in the history books.
But then, like Lincoln at Gettysburg, like Armstrong on the moon, he paused — ever so slightly, but long enough for this judge to see it. He was done.
Yes, he kept chomping on the bun ball, but as Chestnut sped past, closed his jaw on his last bite and swallowed, Kobayashi gave up, spitting out the chewed up buns that remained in his mouth at the final seconds.
Later, he admitted that he wasn’t ready for the five-dog faceoff.
“It never even entered into my mind that I wouldn’t win, so I never thought about what would happen in a tie,” the legendary eater said. “There’s no question that I lost momentum in the playoff round.”
He remains a crowd favorite at Coney Island, and, of course, no one can take away from him his greatest achievement: eating 17.7 pounds of pan-seared cow brains in 15 minutes.
For his part, Chestnut said the crowd pushed him to victory. “They wouldn’t let me fail,” said the pride of San Jose, Calif. “They pushed me through the pain.”
As he spoke, a crowd at Stillwell and Surf avenues that Shea estimated was 35,000 people but was closer to 5,000, roared its approval. One man showed off his “Obama/Chestnut ’08” T-shirt, a presidential ticket that emerged as increasingly viable in light of the champion’s win.
“Clearly, today, we came together as a nation, as a species,” Shea said. “This contest was emotionally overwhelming, but it shows that America has its priorities back in order.”
When asked to explain how it shows that, Shea added, “Competitive eating is the battleground on which Lucifer and God compete for men’s souls — but who won today? Humanity.”