Coney Island Contender (cont.)
Posted: Wednesday July 5, 2006 4:56PM; Updated: Friday July 7, 2006 12:45PM
And how important is that?
"Very," he said.
After all, it's certainly hard to defend a sport's legitimacy when all you get for being successful is 300 pounds and cardiovascular troubles. But each July, Kobayashi returns stronger, more skillful, and more intimidating. First surfacing at 5-7 and 120 pounds, competitive eating's Sybarite Splinter began bodybuilding and now weighs in at a brawny 160.
Like track icon Roger Bannister and his historic sub-four-minute mile, Kobayashi's ease in regularly eating 50 hot dogs has inspired the entire field. Seven Americans have broken 30 since his ascent.
"For the first couple of years, he seemed unbeatable," recalled Chestnut, who finished third in 2005 with 32 HDB's, behind Kobayashi and Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas, a ferocious, 100-pound Korean-American. "He pushed me and everyone to a new limit."
In reality, though, that is only partially true. Every eater may have tried to scale Mount Olympus, but by no means could they all get there. The third-place finisher on Tuesday was Thomas, with a distant 37 HDB's that replicated her total from last year. Sweden's Robert Andersson wondered aloud whether he would even bother returning in 2007 and if it was worth engaging in an endeavor he absolutely has no shot at winning. American Jed Donahue embodied that Sisyphean fatalism best, spending all 12 minutes of the contest enjoying a grand total of one hot dog and ironically sipping water.
Chestnut, however, did more than aspire to that limit. He forced Kobayashi there by actually leading the defending champ for most of the contest, revitalizing the crowd of 25,000 who came hoping for an American revolution on Independence Day.
With the 90-degree heat and cruel humidity, it was what the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE) had long advertised: a duel at high noon. And like a racehorse with closing speed, Kobayashi kept pace before pulling away from Chestnut at 39 hot dogs, maintaining his eerily calm, robotic motion. He deftly instituted late technical changes: chewing, as opposed to straight swallowing, and even inhaling two hot dogs at a time.
Chestnut -- violently writhing and kneading his stomach, cramming everything into his mouth the whole way through -- exemplified desire. But he ultimately faltered, looking over his shoulder to find a two-dog deficit in the final minutes. Kobayashi's title -- his sixth, and Japan's ninth in the last ten years -- would be safe.
"He is a very strong competitor," Kobayashi said through a translator while hoisting the Mustard Yellow Belt. "I'd like to compete with him next year."
Sitting on that stage, Joey Chestnut probably didn't pay the compliment too much attention. At that point, he looked more susceptible to heatstroke than friendly encouragement.
He had seen all he needed to see: Kobayashi, standing tall, officially inaugurating a rivalry in the most agonizing of ways -- with a win.