The contest had been billed as that of a maimed six-time champion against a younger record-holding upstart and as a championship long out of American hands suddenly within U.S. reach again. And when the competition actually took place, the hobbled champion surprised the crowd by taking it to the limit until he couldn't keep it inside.
Takeru Kobayashi, handicapped by wisdom tooth surgery and an arthritic jaw, seemed to match Joey Chestnut dog for dog until the end, when he appeared to regurgitate a couple of them. Both men broke the world record of 59, but when the July 4 competition was over, Chestnut was proclaimed the new champion of Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island, with a total of 66. Kobayashi was credited with 63.
The day before, the samurai of the speed-eating world seemed to have sensed that he may have met his match. At a press conference Kobayashi took a deep breath and slowly bowed his head. Such a move normally signals the beginning of his onslaught on a pile of food hot dogs, cow brains, rice balls that he devours in record time. But when Kobayashi looked up, he did not have hot dogs flopping out of his mouth. Rather he had tears streaming down his face.
He was not only battling an injured jaw and an insurgent young rival, but also the recent death of his mother. She died in March after being diagnosed with cancer in 2004. "If I won seven times in a row, I'd be there with [Lance] Armstrong," Kobayashi, 29, said through an interpreter, referring to the seven-time Tour de France winner. "I think that was what was keeping her alive. She had a will to see me." Yet his old exuberance was missing. The injury had prohibited him from eating a hot dog in more than two weeks, which clearly affected his confidence. But his traditional Beckham-like penchant for hair flair last year he dyed his thinly cropped head mustard yellow to match the color of the championship belt was also nowhere to be seen.
Much the way Tiger Woods did with golf, Kobayashi revolutionized his sport yes, he insists, competitive eating is a sport with his strenuous training regimen. Yet the day before he needed to eat at least 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes to have a chance of winning the Super Bowl of eating, the Japanese star with a Hoover for a mouth couldn't open his jaw wide enough to accommodate a bun.
From the shoulders down, Kobayashi was ready to go. After he won his first Nathan's contest in 2001 at just 110 pounds, the 5 ft, 6 in. Kobayashi dedicated himself to developing his body, just as Woods chose to reconstruct his swing after winning the 1997 Masters by 12 strokes. In an effort to increase muscle control and endurance, Kobayashi began running an hour a day and lifting weights three times a week. He added 80 pounds of heft, benchpressed 400 pounds and won Nathan's year after year after year.
However, while Kobayashi's torso was primed for dozens of hot dogs, his mouth wasn't. He injured his jaw while training in Japan last month, and visits to scores of doctors failed to produce a conclusive diagnosis. With time of the essence and Kobayashi barely able to open his jaw, he posted a plea on his blog for doctor referrals. As Kobayashi is a national hero in Japan, where competitive eating has been popular for years, his countrymen responded in droves with offers to help. Soon after his posting, Kobayashi had a wisdom tooth pulled and began treatment for jaw arthritis.
As he sat in his interpreter's New York City hotel room Tuesday afternoon trying food on for size, Kobayashi could open his mouth wide enough to accommodate a hot dog by itself, but an attempt to push through a bun resembled a Mack truck trying to enter a home garage. Two visits to an acupuncturist in the city, painkillers and anti-inflammatory pills lessened the pain but not the shame of his current condition. "I'm very embarrassed as an athlete and as a competitive eater that I didn't take care of my body and that I'm at this point now," Kobayashi said.
And yet, on July 4, he quickly caught up to Chestnut and, were it not for the upchuck at the end, might well have tied for the championship. Chestnut, 23, a California college student nicknamed "Jaws," has also trained rigorously since eating just 20.5 hot dogs in a 2005 Nathan's qualifier. Last month he obliterated Kobayashi's world record of 53.75 franks by nearly six whole hot dogs. He politely calls Kobayashi an "animal" but it was clear that Chestnut was unafraid of his elder.
Compounding Kobayashi's loss, on top of his jaw injury and failure to set a record seventh win, was the fact that this was his first Nathan's contest without his mother. Kobayashi said before wiping tears from his eyes that he wanted to retire when she was diagnosed with cancer, but she pleaded with him to continue doing what he loved. He bought each of them a Live Strong bracelet. He continues to wear his.