There were a little more than two minutes left on the clock, and things looked positively grim for the sport’s all-time undisputed great, the man they call Jaws. Throughout the bulk of the contest, he was consistently one or two behind the plucky, 22-year old waifish challenger who goes by the far less imposing moniker, the Megatoad. Jaws was grinding, his face becoming a deeper and deeper shade of maroon, the signs of struggle, and yes, fear at losing the seven-year grip he’d maintained on the championship belt, but a granite-gray sky worthy of Grantland Rice and wave after wave of torrential rain and howling winds seemed like portents from the Gods themselves, an omen that a sea change was taking place. At the 1:13 mark, the two powerful athletes were far ahead of the field, but still deadlocked at 52-all, when Jaws engaged his legendary finishing kick …
Of course, as you can probably tell, we’re talking about the climax of the 2014 Nathan’s 4th of July Hot Dog Eating Contest, the absolute apex of competitive eating and the epic battle between the eight time champ, Joey Chestnut, and his greatest rival since Kobayashi fled in a contractual huff.
The showdown on the 4th so towers over the other events on the Major League Eating circuit, the only way to describe its importance to the sport is to think of it as the Kentucky Derby, Super Bowl and World Cup all rolled up into one. And yes, it is most definitely a sport, whatever else you want to say about it.
If you’ve only watched the Hot Dog gestation-fest on ESPN, or seen clips of a sweaty, exhausted Joey Chestnut holding the gold-plated Mustard Belt aloft, you’re missing out on a truly awe-inspiring, wondrously American experience.
Exiting the subway in Coney Island, it’s as if a compact State Fair had suddenly popped up in the middle of Brooklyn. The massive stage, festooned with Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs logos encompasses much of Stillwell Avenue, and even though the festivities haven’t formally begun, there are the slew of red polo-shirted handlers, organizers and technicians, struggling to get a malfunctioning timer clock to work and eyeballing the precarious 20-foot frank that hangs from the backdrop.
There are three cartoonishly-grinning giant hot dog mascots—the stuff of pure animé-infused childhood nightmares—dancing about along with a somewhat haggard-looking little person in full Uncle Sam regalia. Though it’s not close to the 30,000 that will cram themselves into the block when Joey Chestnut defends his crown, fans are already starting to assemble en masse wearing all sorts of Ol’ Glory-based garb, wrapping themselves Jim Craig-style in full-size flags, or just painting the stars n’ bars on every available inch of bare skin—including faces, lips, and eyelids.
There are Green Bay Packers-style hot dog heads and thundersticks (also featuring the Nathan’s logo), handcrafted fatheads for Chestnut, Stonie and the absolute star of the pre-game show, George Shea.
George and his brother Richard are the founders of Major League Eating, but George is the performative half of the duo. He’s the host/toastmaster for the afternoon’s contest and a tightly-wound bundle of unstoppable energy. He’s clad in dress slacks, a button-down shirt, a tie and a straw boater and a blue blazer. (According to Nathan’s official fact sheet, the blazer is only shorn when the weather drops below 85 degrees and is a tip to bettors—yes, there are those who gamble on the results of the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest—that the consumptive totals will be relatively high.)
And George is absolutely working it. The best way to describe him is a combination of an old-time revival preacher or carnival barker modeled on Stanley Tucci’s manic talk show character from The Hunger Games, with a dash of Mitt Romney’s perma-grin, especially if Mitt had not stumbled across the joys of private equity firms and venture capital.
He writes his own material. And boy, does he love delivering it. It’s so obscenely over the top, so luridly purple that the only way to pull it off is to treat it like it’s Shakespearean verse, and drive the text to the absolute limits.
You lose track of the number of times when he bellows, “This is New York. This is Brooklyn! This is AMERICA!!!!” It might come across as the worst kind of jingoistic parody, if it weren’t delivered with such absolute joy and pure earnestness.
While bringing onstage a crew of beefy, steroidal, faux-hawked, water gun-wielding gentlemen that will be holding up signs to indicate the number of franks eaten during the women’s competition that he, either unaware of or relishing in the attendant irony, calls “The Bun Boys,” he has them do one-armed pushups while grunting, “Damn you’re a good bun boy, a good bun boy!” and thrusting vigorously to a techno beat.
Announcing one competitor, he says, “Her mouth is an event horizon.”
And right before the men’s competition is about to start, he stands aloft a platform, backed by a gospel choir in white robes singing a heraldic version of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” he says:
“They say that competitive eating is the battleground upon which God and Lucifer wage war for men's souls, my friends, and they are right. For this is a battle for the ages, this is a battle of the Titans, of warrior gods, who come to Coney Island each Fourth of July to send this message to every corner of the globe: We are the strong, and we are the fast, and we are the free. And we may be knocked down by force of man or nature, but we will never submit. We will be subordinated to no one. So it is, and so it always shall be. Let the contest begin!”
It is glorious.
And while we wait for the actual sporting contest to commence, there is a stream of performances for George to shepherd on and off the stage. They’re all goofily endearing, if not particularly polished, like a small-town variety show.
For example, one of the pro eaters, Badlands Booker, takes the stage to belt out a number with the house band, the Heavenly Chillbillies. Badlands is has got to be pushing 300 pounds and is one of the few really hyperadiposic entrants. He’s the exception to the rule when it comes to the physiognomy of competitive eating. Like any sport, it’s really, really hard to do if you’re tugging around extra weight, even though you might assume that training for the big game in this instance might inevitably lead to extra tonnage.
But for Badlands’ act, George asks the crowd, without a hint of irony, “Do you all remember Coolio?” He pauses for a moment, while the crowd seems to struggle to recall some early 90’s mélange of Michelle Pfeiffer Oscar-bait and Weird Al parodies, “Well, we’re going to change ‘Gangster’s Paradise’ to ‘Frankster’s Paradise.’”
Especially at ground zero for all things hipster, you might be tempted to think that all this would be met with eye rolls and near-Gallic shrugs. But it’s just so much darned fun. The thing about irony or hedonic detachment is that aside from how cool you might or might not think it makes you, it’s not a particularly pleasant experience most of the time. Giving in to the goofiness and the silliness, when everyone around you is waving flags and chanting, “USA, USA,” or “Belgium sucks!” is fun. Escaping whatever degree of remorse you might have about the problems with America as a whole and the intricacies of policies foreign and domestic that you may or may not be endorsing via said chants is fun. Singing along to bowdlerized Coolio is fun.
And when George sets up a little entr’acte, interviewing Joey Chestnut’s girlfriend, Neslie Ricasa, peppering her with double-entendre laden questions about whether he can fend off Stonie’s challenge like, “Do you think Joey Chestnut has what it takes to be a man?” so that Chestnut can sneak up behind her, get on bended knee and propose, it’s enough to make your heart burst with childlike glee.
After three hours of acts and bits and worrying about the torrential downpour that seemed oh-so-imminent, the men’s competition began. George kicked it into high gear with the aforementioned speech, bringing out each competitor to his own raucous, stadium rock theme music and equally epic introduction. Chestnut was last, carried on a yellow chariot through a sea of adoring fans.
Like Iron Chefs, they fussed with the dogs in front of them, prepping liquids for both dunking and drinking and awaiting the opening bell.
George counted the crowd down to zero and they were off.
Initially, you’re hit with a moment of absolute shock, where you almost can’t believe what you’re seeing, because, you’re watching people eat and cheering them on.
There’s an inherent weirdness about eating-as-sport that goes beyond any other niche competitive activity you might take a too-long look at. Heck, all sports are basically weird activities if you take the time to actually examine the component parts. Put a ball in hoop? Kick a ball in a net? Hit another human being in the face? Why would you want to do that, let alone spend vast amounts of time trying to prove you were the absolute best at doing that?
Food is so primordial, so basic, that the idea of consuming it competitively instinctively makes you want to yell out some form of “Why? Why would you do that?” It feels a priori like a perversion. Like competitive breathing or competitive sleeping.
But it is incredible to watch, like a gnarled, manic, live-action version of Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son; Appetite turned upon appetite until it consumes itself. You see the hours of training, drinking gallons of milk to stretch their stomach muscles without packing in tons of calories, or the days spent eating alone, without fans or ESPN or other sponsors, just to be ready for this one moment.
Stonie jumps out to an early lead. He’d recently posted a training video of himself consuming 66 wieners in 10 minutes, and his early pace suggests that he might top that. After topping Chestnut numerous times this season, and based on his early pace it looks like David might actually trump Goliath.
The contrast in styles is particularly stark. Chestnut is contained and controlled, adhering to a strict routine where he gobbles down two dogs followed by two water-logged buns. Stonie is an electric and eclectic artist, looking like he’s engaged in a deadly game of Dance, Dance Revolution.
He twitches and spasms as if he’s trying to change the shape of his body to somehow make it more conducive to cramming the food down his gullet. He jerks his head back repeatedly, jumps in the air and jabs his elbows back at invisible restraints.
For the first seven minutes of the match, it’s working. The lead never expands by more than two sausages, but it’s consistent. Joey even appears to be laboring or faltering. The crowd becomes more and more nervous. George is pounding at the table, screaming at the top of his lungs at the thought of this unimaginable upset.
But whether he was pulling a rope-a-dope, or he was just pacing himself, with the grace and guile that’s the hallmark of the true greats, Chestnut takes over. There have been comparisons to Michael Jordan before, and if you watch this match, you’ll get it. This is winning time. This is Chestnut time.
Suddenly, with 1:13 to go, they’re all even at 53. Then Chestnut’s up by one, then two. Stonie sags, and looks like he’s either going to pass out or regurgitate a lot of processed meat.
The clock strikes zero, and the champ is still the champ, 61-56. Joey raises his arms, covered in sweat and rain as George just loses his damn mind.
Afterwards, while Chestnut was surrounded by cameras and reporters, the Mustard Yellow Belt slung over his shoulder like a real-life Rocky Balboa, I managed to corral Matt Stonie as he took pictures with the fans. His stomach was noticeably protruding, but aside from that, you’d be hard-pressed to say that he looked like a person that just consumed about 18,000 calories.
“It was close but he pulled away at the end. It was intense,” he said. “With the rain and everything, the natural casings, they got a little bit tough to swallow. He pulled away at the end, but I’ll get him. I’m sure I’ll get him next year.”
I hope he does. In the end, it was, without a doubt a truly American celebration of our Independence—gaudy and shamelessly self-congratulatory and so, so much fun. A giant, over-the-top mess of contradictions and giddiness and mistakes and something weirdly pure and divine. A melting pot.
I can’t wait ‘till next year.