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American dream

Chestnut aims to bring hot dog crown back to U.S.

Posted: Tuesday July 3, 2007 1:15PM; Updated: Tuesday July 3, 2007 2:18PM
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Last year, Joey Chestnut came within two hot dogs of defeating Kobayashi. Can he finally get over the hump on Wednesday?
Last year, Joey Chestnut came within two hot dogs of defeating Kobayashi. Can he finally get over the hump on Wednesday?
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By Andy Gray, SI.com

Joey Chestnut was like any other nervous 23-year-old on a first date as he drove to San Francisco with Nikki, a fellow San Jose State student he'd met at a party earlier that week. The two hit it off instantly. She was immediately attracted to how normal and down to earth he seemed. Though the choice of venue for the couple's first date -- a wing eating contest -- was a little odd, she loved sports and had never witnessed people eat so much so quickly. Little did she know that her date would soon be the king of the competitive-eating jungle. As the night drew to a close, Joey had a confession for his date: "I took you here for a reason. This is what I do."

Not only does Chestnut do it, but he does it better than just about everyone else. Sure, you may have an Uncle Joey who is overweight and eats all the chicken wings at your family's Super Bowl party, but your Uncle Joey didn't down 182 chicken wings in 12 minutes at the Wing Bowl last February as Chestnut did, setting a new world record. He is currently the No. 2-ranked competitive eater in the world and all that stands between him and the No. 1 ranking is a 5-foot-7, 160-pound eating machine from Japan named Takeru Kobayashi. The two meet on Wednesday at the 91st annual Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest -- the Super Bowl of competitive eating -- in Coney Island for the the coveted Mustard Yellow Belt, $20,000 in prize money and the right to call himself the world's best eater.

The two first squared off at the 2005 Coney Island festival and Kobayashi, the four-time defending champion, finished off 49 HDBs (hot dogs with buns) in 12 minutes, 12 ahead of Chestnut. Last year, Chestnut polished off 52 HDBs, a substantial improvement from the previous year, but still finished two short of Kobayashi. On Wednesday, he hopes to finally dethrone the reigning hot dog king. Although Chestnut set the world record in Tempe last month by finishing off an astonishing 59.5 HDBs, he has yet to beat Kobayashi head-to-head. He's hoping that will change this week.

"He's the person I have in my sights," Chestnut said by phone last week. "He's my only goal. Everyone wants to call it a rivalry, but you can't really call it a rivalry because I haven't beaten him yet."

So how does a sport with a circus-like atmosphere, akin to that of professional wrestling, draw 1.4 million viewers, as the 2006 Nathan's Festival did on ESPN? According to Richard Shea, president of the International Federation of Competitive Eating, it's simple:

"It's sort of a David vs. Goliath situation with Kobayashi playing the role of Goliath and Chestnut as David. Plus, it falls on Independence Day, so fans want to see the American win. For Kobayashi, it's a very patriotic event because he wants to win it for his country too."

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