It would have none of the fanfare, and few of the table manners, found at the G-8 summit of economic superpowers. But the G-8 summit of gastronomic superpowers would be no less momentous, as eight world champions of competitive eating gathered for a Thanksgiving Eat-Off at Mickey Mantle's sports bar, a New York City shrine to competitive drinking.
The Group of Eight included four wafer-thin men. Crazy Legs Conti has eaten 3� pounds of pancakes and half a pound of bacon in 12 minutes and run the New York City Marathon, though not consecutively. Joe Menchetti once consumed 45 conch fritters in six minutes. Oleg Zhornitskiy laid waste to 74 buffalo wings in 12 minutes. And 130-pound Rich LeFevre, in 600 seconds, inhaled 1� gallons of five-alarm chili. Though slight of stature, these men are, in the dog-eat-chili-dog world of competitive consumption, larger than life: four faces on eating's Mount Flushmore.
Yet, these Four Forkmen of the Apocalypse reflect a larger, and disturbing, trend. Have you noticed? Once peopled with literal giants like Babe Ruth and Art Donovan, sport makes less and less room at the table for fat guys, who are increasingly consigned to society's margins, if not its margarines: Competitive eater Don Lerman, in five terrible minutes last year, ate seven quarter-pound sticks of butter, inserting them lengthwise into his maw—one after another—like a man dispatching logs into a woodchipper. Indeed, the Tiger Woods of competitive eating, Japan's Takeru (the Tsunami) Kobayashi, weighs all of 113 pounds. (Before competition.) "To call Kobayashi the Tiger Woods of competitive eating," says Rich Shea, president of the International Federation of Competitive Eating, "is to slight Kobayashi." Last Fourth of July, Kobayashi ate 50� hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes. The next closest competitor, 300-plus—plus—pound Eric (Badlands) Booker, ate 26�. So guess what he's doing? "Right now I'm trying to lose what Kobayashi weighs—113 pounds—by next July 4," says Booker. "If I can then expand my stomach to meet my [stretched] skin, the sky's the limit for me."
In all sports it now literally pays to be thin. The Tsunami is rumored to make a quarter-million dollars a year by eating professionally. Boosters have pledged $1,000 for every pound that Maryland football coach Ralph (Fridge) Friedgen loses, and at last report the Fridge, who began his regimen at 355 pounds, was 40 pounds—and boosters were 40 grand—lighter.
Fat is costing Chris Childs money. Last month the 6'3" New Jersey guard, who was a swollen 230 pounds, was suspended by the Nets, packed off to the Duke Diet and Fitness Center and ordered to lose 20 pounds. Inspired, Childs began to drop weight that very day, surrendering $30,000 in jewelry and cash to armed men outside P. Diddy's Manhattan nightclub.
Believing that no NFL team would hire an obese head coach, New England Patriots assistant Charlie Weis had his stomach stapled last June (page 94). In July 6'1", 286-pound Sanford Rivers, a highly respected NFL head linesman, was suspended for the entirety of this season. His vertical zebra stripes were deemed, in the image-obsessed eyes of the league, insufficiently slimming. Which is odd, as the NFL—along with sumo wrestling—is the last refuge of the overweight in sports. Ten years ago there were 66 300-pounders in the league. Today there are well over 300 who are well over 300.
To be sure, the competitive eating circuit still has its behemoths, like Atlanta's 360-pound Dale (Mouth from the South) Boone, who has speed-eaten more Russian dumplings (274 in six minutes) than any man on Earth. Boone was planning to stay at Crazy Legs Conti's apartment in New York City during the G-8 summit. "And we'll have our own Macy's parade," Conti said last week. "Dale is the size of one of the smaller blimps."
But Conti's hero and mentor is the legendary, 400-pound Hungry Charles Hardy, with whom Crazy Legs used to haunt an all-you-can-eat Greenwich Village sushi joint. "Charles eats a California roll the size of California," says Conti, whose friend was barred for life from that depleted establishment. But not before he taught Conti everything he knows: Last Super Bowl Sunday in New Orleans, Conti ate 168 oysters in 10 minutes to defeat heavy favorites like Mo' Ribs Molesky and Crawfish Nick Stipelkovich.
In eating as in everything else, thin is in. The heavy man is a dinosaur. "Bigness helped the dinosaurs thrive," says Shea, who has no formal training as a paleontologist. "But ultimately it hurt them. Not to take anything away from Booker"—and any busboy will tell you, you can't take anything away from Booker—"but tomorrow's competitive eater is likely a physically fit guy."
Thus, at Mickey Mantle's, nothing short of sport's future would be at stake. Does it belong to marathoners like LeFevre, who once scarfed down two 72-ounce steaks in 58 minutes on Donny & Marie? Or to full-bodied fullbacks like Booker, who did away with 38 hardboiled eggs in 10 minutes on Fox's Glutton Bowl?