Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Food | Sports

July 11, 2007

Glimpses of Gustatory Gladiators

When Joey Chestnut made competitive-eating, nay, sports history, Gelf was there with camera and notepad.

Michael Gluckstadt

As every American now knows, in a Fourth of July storybook finish, good ol' boy wonder Joey Chestnut defeated his Japanese nemesis and six-time champion Takeru Kobayashi in Nathan's annual International Hot Dog Eating Contest. But unless you were among the 50,000+ who attended the event in Coney Island or caught it live on ESPN, you may not realize that the two favorites shared the stage with 15 diverse and eccentric characters.

Eaters Tim Janus, Takeru Kobayashi, Joey Chestnut, and Patrick Bertoletti, with MC George Shea. (All photos and video by Michael Gluckstadt)
"With its carefully scripted storylines and constructed characters, competitive eating is becoming a marketing force."

Eaters Tim Janus, Takeru Kobayashi, Joey Chestnut, and Patrick Bertoletti, with MC George Shea. (All photos and video by Michael Gluckstadt)

Not unlike pro wrestling, each of the competitors displays a carefully-crafted, often outsized image. In the following photos, Gelf spotlights some of the overlooked athletes from the competition.

Allan Goldstein

Allen "The Shredder" Goldstein earned his nickname from his ridiculously sharp teeth that enable him to rip apart hot dogs, bologna, or matzo balls in a matter of mere seconds. Close examination reveals that this is a trait shared by many competitive eaters. During his introduction, Goldstein flexed and shouted wildly at the crowd, but in a postgame interview Goldstein came off as a polite Jewish guy slightly past his competitive eating prime. Tying for last place with 21 HDBs (Hot Dog plus Buns), the 41 year-old chalked up his sub-par performance to cold hot dogs and the salty sea air—factors that didn’t seem to hold back the rest of the field on this record-breaking day.

Dale Boone

When introducing Dale Boone, schlocky announcer George Shea quickly ran down a list of Boone's ancestors, Genesis-style—"…son of Jeremiah, son of Thomas…"—culminating with American pioneer Daniel Boone. To celebrate his heritage, Dale Boone wears a coonskin hat and a pair of oversized overalls. His entrance was booed by the crowd because, according to the ESPN announcer, "Boone is the biggest trash talker in the sport." On TV he stares menacingly into the camera and calls out Kobayashi personally. Based on his persona, it would be reasonable to assume that Boone may actually be insane, but in person he is entirely different. Without his trademark hat, he walked unnoticed through the crowd after the event, and had to be introduced to journalists by his fellow competitors. Based in Atlanta, Boone joked with other out-of-towners about New Yorkers' rudeness, then apologized to the natives. After that, he went inside, put on his coonskin cap, and came back out as the snarling "mouth of the south."

Sonya Thomas

Somewhere in sports scripture it has been determined that all frighteningly competitive female athletes must be nicknamed “The Black Widow.” Sonya “the Black Widow” Thomas holds more titles than any other competitive eater, male or female. Her 29 world records include hard-boiled eggs, oysters, terducken, jambalaya, and cheesecake, of which she ate one tenth of her body weight in under 10 minutes. Despite her nickname, The Black Widow is actually a pink-eye-shadow-wearing sweetheart who is good friends with many of the other IFOCE (International Federation of Competitive Eating) members she competes against. Even though she shoved a female record 39 hot dogs into her 107-pound body, Thomas was upset with herself for not stepping up her game.

Patrick Philbin

While many of the other athletes have cultivated an onstage persona different from themselves, Patrick Philbin is exactly the man he appears to be. Bearing no nicknames and an uncanny resemblance to Don Zimmer, Philbin is large and in charge, on and off the hot-dog-eating stage. When the 310-pound 41-year-old from Moonachie, New Jersey, is not eating (competitively, that is), he works as a courier traveling in and out Manhattan. It was in this capacity that Philbin met shock radio DJs Opie and Anthony and became a frequent guest on their show. In one of these guest appearances Philbin vomited egg nog into the mouth of an intern, earning him a ban from the IFOCE for "conduct unbecoming an eater." The ban was rescinded following an onslaught of requests from Opie and Anthony listeners, but Philbin's crazy antics remain unchanged.

Tim Janus

Tim "Eater X" Janus is one of the stars of MLE (Major League Eating). He's only been in the game three years, but has quickly made a name for himself with his talent and Ultimate Warrior face paint. At Nathan's, Janus ate 43.5 HDBs, good for fourth place and a personal best. He was also seen sharing a post-competition dog with fellow eater Crazy Legs Conti. Janus is very popular with the other eaters because of his warm demeanor and sense of humor—the latter of which was on display in a sign he carried with him on stage (and on national television) that read "Hermione Dies."

Tim Brown, Crazy Legs Conti, Erik Denmark, Arturo Rios

From left to right: Tim Brown, Crazy Legs Conti, Erik Denmark, and Arturo Rios.

Tim "Gravy" Brown is a classy rookie who bought a new suit just for his entrance to the contest (he took it off to compete). His nickname was given to him by the people at the IFOCE because of the spittle he tends to discharge while competing.
One of the most visible characters on the circuit, Crazy Legs Conti is the subject of a documentary, Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating (and this Gelf article). He has been featured on many TV shows, including The Sopranos and MTV's True Life: I Am a Competitive Eater, alongside Tim Janus. He could be the most recognizable competitive eater behind Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut. Whether that's due to his dreadlocks or his onetime feat of eating his way out of 60 cubic feet of popcorn is up for debate.
Following the event, Erik "The Red" Denmark looked the way I imagine a person should after eating 23 hot dogs. He seemed agitated as he swayed from side to side holding his stomach. At that point the interview was cut short. Fortunately Denmark weighs in regularly about competitive eating on his blog, including a post that may explain the strange scoring in the final seconds on the 4th.
Arturo Rios "Grande" is the top Latino competitive eater and the 2007 IFOCE Rookie of the Year. He also has a slightly anachronistic affinity for boomboxes.

Joey Chestnut, Kobayashi

The rivalry between Kobayashi and Chestnut has brought competitive eating into the public consciousness. Their ability to bring out the best in each other's game has been likened to Russel-Chamberlain, Ali-Frazier, and Nadal-Federer, while the global impact of their battle is not a far cry from Balboa-Drago. Hyperbole aside, these two competitors have the talent and backstory to make non-fans care about MLE events. News of Kobayashi's supposed "Jawthiritis" made its way around the world in the weeks leading up to Nathan's (and evoked some punny headlines). While the injury was probably real, Kobayashi's record-breaking performance indicates that it did not hold him back nearly as much as the media indicated it would. Was the injury played up for dramatic effect? Possibly, but the real news is that people were talking about it all. That's something that makes the IFOCE brass very happy. (See video of Chestnut's entrance to the Nathan's stage; of Chestnut at hot dog No. 31; and of the contest's final stretch.)

George Shea

If the MLE circuit resembles pro wrestling, than George Shea is its Vince McMahon. Shea is the huckster host who warmed up the crowd and announced the festivities with such lines as, "We've arrived at this moment by the unswerving punctuality of chance." You can catch some of his antics on YouTube as he addresses the crowd at last year's contest as if delivering the Sermon on the Mount. In 1997, George Shea founded the IFOCE with his brother Richard Shea, the current President of the organization (George is the Chairman). Under the guidance of Citizen Shea, Major League Eating has gone from an oddball local story to having its injuries reported on CNN and live coverage of several events on ESPN.

The scene

With its carefully scripted storylines and constructed characters, Major League Eating is becoming a marketing force. And with all the organized hoopla surrounding it, the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest straddles a thin line between sport and spectacle. In all of sports, that line has become increasingly blurred. Is the focus on Kobayashi's jaw all that different than the attention given to Donovan McNabb's right knee? Is Eater X's mask any less intimidating than Rip Hamilton's? Is Crazy Legs' fame, thanks to his media savvy as much as his competitive accomplishments, any less deserving than James Blake's?
I understand some people's reluctance to count the most basic human activity as sport, but I ask those people to consider the final minute of the 2007 Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest. Joey Chestnut pushes himself past any previous human threshold of sausage-consumption, as well as past his rival Kobayashi—himself overcoming a (supposedly) painful jaw injury—to bring the title back to America for the first time in nine years, in front of thousands of fans chanting JO-EY! JO-EY! JO-EY! All this, on the Fourth of July. I don't know about you, but I can't think of a more exciting sports moment since Boise State-Oklahoma.


Related on the web: Deadspin also was at Nathan's on the 4th.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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- Food
- posted on Nov 04, 07

why was my image covered up onthe wall of fame by a street sign what kind of photograhers do you hire? I was between sonyas 25 sign and eric booker this is the first time inall the pictures taken of the wall of fame by any publication, that my image was covered up ...don lerman

- Food
- posted on Nov 04, 07

I was one of the 3oldtime competitve eaters ( the one in the middle RECEIVING THE LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD even thatshot was blury

Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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