Posted: Saturday February 4, 2012 11:30AM ; Updated: Saturday February 4, 2012 2:56PM
Bryan Armen Graham
Bryan Armen Graham>VIEWPOINT

A Philly tradition like no other

Story Highlights

Wing Bowl was founded in 1993 by two Philadelphia talk-radio hosts

Takeru Kobayashi added some intrigue to the 20th annual gorge-fest

Kobayashi devoured a record 337 chicken wings to win the competition

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Takeru Kobayashi downed 337 chicken wings, smashing the previous record by 82 wings.
Takeru Kobayashi downed 337 chicken wings, smashing the previous record by 82 wings.
Alex Brandon/AP

PHILADELPHIA -- It's 4:45 a.m. and thousands of people are waiting in sub-freezing temperatures to enter a 20,000-seat arena for a competitive-eating contest that's been sold out for weeks.

Only in Philly, where for a whole generation now the annual Wing Bowl has occupied a unique place in the city's colorful sports folklore. First conceived by local sports talk radio station WIP in 1993 as a diversion from the town's perpetual sports ennui, it's mutated from a modest wing-eating contest in the lobby of the Wyndham Franklin Plaza Hotel into a bawdy, unapologetic carnival of gluttony.

And though it remains an occasion for extreme political incorrectness, a kind of Sodom and Gomorrah on Broad and Pattison, Friday's Wing Bowl 20 promised something greater: the chance to see first-time participant Takeru Kobayashi, the 33-year-old Japanese native widely regarded as the world's best competitive eater.

For even if you resist the notion of competitive eating as a sport, there's no denying Kobayashi is a champion. It's not just the six Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest championships or his laundry list of titles in other disciplines: from pizza (40 slices in 12 minutes), to soft tacos (81 in 10 minutes), to Taiwan lamb pot (24 in five-and-a-half minutes), among others. It's his sinewy 5-foot-8, 127-pound frame, magnetic personality and the effortless, methodical way he's plied his trade. He's got the glow.

• GALLERY: Best shots from Wing Bowl 20

Examples of Kobayashi's curious allure were manifest throughout his week in Philadelphia, where he charmed fans and reporters throughout a condensed media tour, typically interacting through his translator, Maggie James, though he's better at English than he lets on. When he attended the Bulls-76ers game on Wednesday night -- his first-ever NBA contest -- all the players wanted their pictures taken with him. ("He's the best there is," Joakim Noah gushed.)

WIP promotes the Wing Bowl for months leading up to the event, granting automatic entries to former champions and red-letter names like Kobayashi, but forcing lesser known competitors to propose and complete a gastronomic "stunt" in the studio. Joe "Elmer Fudd" Illgas of Kennett Square, Pa., ate three pounds of pasta and one pound of rabbit (get it?) in 10 minutes. Jerry Coughlan of Clifton Heights, Pa., who goes by Gentleman Jerry, put down a one-pound ham sandwich in 120 seconds. Stephanie "Chilita" Torres, a 5-foot, 105-pound native of Las Cruces, N.M. -- and the lone female among this year's competitors -- deposited 10 feet of sausage in less than five minutes.

Still, given Kobayashi's credentials, the vast majority of Friday's participants were virtual no-hopers. One of the few given a chance at the upset was Bill "El Wingador" Simmons, a five-time Wing Bowl champion who came out of a seven-year retirement (at age 50) for the opportunity to compete against the world's most accomplished eater. With less than an hour before start time, the Woodbury Heights, N.J., resident (and third betting favorite at 4-to-1) wandered the bowels of the Wells Fargo Center in a trance-like state. Having gone without solid food since Tuesday to work up an appetite, Simmons said his wife woke him at 3:30 a.m. and cooked up some bacon and fried onions with butter "because the smell gets my taste buds going." Exuding a veteran's quiet confidence, he all but guaranteed victory.

"It's not a barroom contest no more," said Simmons, whose habit of chewing 10 pounds of frozen Tootsie Rolls at a time to strengthen his jaw is local legend. "This is a training event. You have to train to be here. It's not a joke no more. It's a festive event, but the contenders that are in here are athletes because we train to do this."

The 26 contestants -- and 127 scantily-clad "Wingettes" (read: strippers) who cheer them on from the stage -- enter the arena on a parade-style floats, which most often reference Philadelphia's sports teams. More than one-third of the floats on Friday slandered embattled Eagles head coach Andy Reid. The nominal title for most offensive went to Dave "U.S. Male" Goldstein, the Vorhees, N.J., letter carrier who qualified by eating four pounds of lasagna in five minutes. He decapitated a life-size Styrofoam effigy of the mustachioed coach (with a fully functional guillotine labeled REIDJECTOR) and paraded the bloody head around the floor area on a stake. Among the VIPs wandering the grounds were adult-film stars Jenna Jameson, Mary Carey and Ron Jeremy. A live band hammered arena rock standards from the back of the room next to a parade of exotic dancers taking turns on a mechanical bull.

Such bizarre scenery continues to amaze and dumbfound Al Morganti, the radio host and Wing Bowl co-founder who's described his unlikely brainchild as "Fellini meets the Hell's Angels at a family picnic."

"We explain it by saying you can't explain it. It defies any sort of logic, any sort of argument that we've advanced as a culture," Morganti said at Thursday night's weigh-ins (yes, really), which took place at a sports bar near the arena. "It's why the fans of Philadelphia are different. They jump in. They want to be part."

Even though undefeated three-time defending champion Jonathan "Super" Squibb was in the competition (and listed as a co-favorite at 2-to-1), Kobayashi was given the champion's honor of entering last. His elaborate float was fronted by a pair of gigantic puppets and nearly a dozen Asian-themed Mummers. But despite an entrance that paid more than a passing homage to local icon Rocky Balboa, the reception for Kobayashi was mixed in a parochial town bred to root for the locals.

Those who'd doubted Kobayashi's favorite status cited his inexperience in the medium (chicken wings) and Wing Bowl's relatively long duration (30 minutes), which could test the upper limits of even the most confident eater. ("He's had problems with jaw strength in the past," Simmons had prodded several times during the week-long buildup.) But whatever questions lingered regarding Kobi's mandibular fortitude were answered as he sprinted to an early lead that rapidly grew insurmountable, tearing through wings with three rapid-fire bites apiece. Even before he'd taken control he was in high spirits, grinning during the split-second between wings as his entourage rooted him on. Operating out of a semi-crouch position, Kobayashi had sucked down 165 wings at the midway point, rendering would-be challengers Super Squibb (144), U.S. Male (119) and El Wingador (114) specks in the rear view.

Though Kobayashi's victory was certain long before the final horn sounded and scores were tabulated, the official results still drew astonishment. Kobayashi had downed 337 wings in a half-hour, handily defeating Squibb (271) and obliterating his previous record by 82. Simmons finished in third place with 251 wings, with Chilita coming in fourth with 238. But the outrageous margin of victory told just half of the story. "I've been counting wings since Wing Bowl 15," muttered one judge in awe during the trophy presentation, "and I've never seen wings that clean."

As he waited to receive the large cardboard check signifying the grand prize of $20,000 (and a Super Bowl-style championship ring commissioned by a local jeweler), dozens of photographers surrounded him like a winning racehorse. "They are the people who made this stage," he said of ex-champions Simmons and Squibb (who was awarded a Chevy Camaro as the local winner), "and I was honored to come here and fight with them today."

Kobi's triumph was the climax of a training process that began in December, when he began expanding his stomach using specific volumes of water. ("Not just drinking water, [but] inhaling it," James explains. "It's actually pretty ghastly.") Having never eaten wings in competition before, he graduated to hot ribs before New Year's Day and began eating 100 of those on a regular basis. By the end of January he was eating 200 wings daily. While simulating the competition on Wednesday and Thursday of the past week, Kobayashi packed down 300 wings apiece. Yesterday he rested, as is his custom the day before a competition.

As he stroked his bulging abdomen while celebrating his victory, it's natural to wonder if he'd be more comfortable letting it out the way it went in. But Kobayashi doesn't believe in purging because, he says, your stomach gets used to it and it can weaken you when you're in contest. He's said the strength-building process isn't just for the competition itself, but for the several days it requires for the body to go back to normal. "You have to let it go through the natural process," he says.

After a half-hour of radio and TV interviews, Kobayashi arrived in his locker room to a hero's welcome from three dozen sponsors, Wingettes, entourage members and miscellaneous hangers-on. "I might cry so I'm not going to talk too much," he said through James, "but I thank you for all of your support, every single one of you."

As the arena emptied and Kobayashi prepared to leave for the first of several after-parties, it became clear he'd made a fan of one of his staunchest rivals when Simmons -- the champion now formerly known as El Wingador -- popped in the locker room to pay a heartfelt tribute.

"A great champion. I'm honored just to sit and break bread with this guy," he said as he left, before turning back. "I'll be at Philly Diner if anyone wants to come with."

 
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