The Associated Press
You knew it was going to be a special day when Joey Chestnut first opened his mouth.
To talk, that is.
“I’m really hungry,” he said.
In the world of competitive eating, that qualifies as a bit of trash talking. But it paled to what Chestnut had to say a day earlier when he questioned the legitimacy of the “jaw-thritis” that afflicted six-time defending hot dog eating champion Takeru Kobayashi.
“Kobayashi is the underdog,” Chestnut said, “and he’s claiming an illness.”
They were only words, but to those who follow the sport of gut gorging it was like Evander Holyfield questioning Mike Tyson’s manhood. It was only appropriate that it took place at a fight-like weigh-in, where Chestnut topped the Japanese hot dog eating superstar by 61 pounds.
Actually, Kobayashi did seem ill Wednesday, but it wasn’t until the end of 12 minutes of the best hot dog eating you’ve ever watched that he showed it.
He had what is delicately called in the business, a reversal. OK, he puked.
So maybe it wasn’t a good day to be in the front row at Coney Island, where 17 of the greatest gurgitators in the world got together to down some Nathan’s hot dogs and buns.
But with Barry Bonds taking the day off from his chase of Henry Aaron it was probably the most compelling TV for those who weren’t planning to grill up a few franks later in the day themselves.
For New Yorkers, it beat paying a scalper 40 bucks to watch the hapless Yankees lose to the Twins from the cheap seats. And why tune in for breakfast at Wimbledon when you can watch lunch at Coney Island?
Sure, it would have been better if the dogs were slathered in mustard, draped in sauerkraut, and topped with a pickle wedge. But there’s something patriotic about spending part of the Fourth of July watching a champion athlete stuff hot dogs and buns soaked in water in his mouth on an average of one every 10.9 seconds.
Most Americans can’t relate to throwing a fastball 95 mph or being able to dunk over Shaq. Most have no concept about how to ace a serve on grass, or hit a drive 325 yards down the middle.
But we’ve all stuffed ourselves silly.
Rumor was, in fact, that the preliminary rounds were held in the right field stands at Dodger Stadium, where on any given night you can watch people who pay 35 bucks for all-you-can-eat and a seat, shovel Dodger Dogs, nachos and peanuts into their mouths.
There is something all-American, though, about contests where the ultimate goal is to consume more food than the eater next to you. This is a country, after all, where two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese, and where 177,000 people underwent surgery to lose weight last year alone.
Maybe that’s why the thousands who crowded around the stage at Coney Island seemed so excited to see Chestnut break Japan’s recent dominance of an institution we once called our own. He ended up not only beating Kobayashi, but setting a new world record of 66 dogs in just 12 minutes.
It couldn’t have come at a better time.
The NBA is being invaded from overseas, the major leagues are full of foreign players and Americans don’t seem to know how to play tennis anymore. More Korean golfers made the cut in last week’s U.S. Women’s Open than Americans.
But we can eat. And not just hot dogs, either.
Chestnut was the hero of this Fourth of July, but another young American, Patrick Bertoletti of Chicago, finished third with 49. Bertoletti already has the title for eating 19 slices of pizza in 10 minutes last year, and he owns records for eating 5.75 pounds of corned beef and cabbage as well as 11 corned beef sandwiches.
And no conversation about great gorgers is complete without a mention of Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas, who was the International Federation of Competitive Eating rookie of the year in 2003 and is currently ranked fourth in the world.
Thomas, food aficionados might remember, once ate 8 pounds, 2 ounces of Wienerschnitzel Chili Cheese Fries in 10 minutes, and holds records in foods as diverse as fruitcake and deep-fried okra.
Her hot dog eating wasn’t great on this day, but it didn’t matter as Chestnut and Kobayashi met in a clash of heavyweight eaters. About the only thing missing was Don King to promote it.
“Only in America,” King would have chortled. “Only in America.”
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.