back to the Black Table
  Larry Getlen            
  The first time Eric Booker ate competitively, he saw what it was for a sporting ego to run amok. On June 21, 1997, at the Nathan's Hot Dog qualifier in Oceanside, New York, at a time when  

Eric strived for nothing more than the year's supply of free hot dogs promised to the winner, another eater, 10 pounds his senior, called him out.

"You might as well just go home," said the man he didn't know. "I'm taking this title."

Eric had no idea how to respond. He did not yet approach eating hot dogs as a sport. There was no thought of sportsmanship or athleticism, none of the "I'm hungry and focused, my ingestion engine is revved up and ready to go" attitude that would later define his career. As the taunts


continued, all he thought of was the free hot dogs.

"I've eaten 30 whoppers in two hours," said the even larger man.

"How many have you eaten?"

"This is my first contest," replied Eric.

"Exactly," came the response. "Go home."

No one who understands the role of the cocky loudmouth in our world should be surprised to learn that minutes before the contest, Eric watched the braggart order a chicken sandwich and a large soda. Nor is it surprising that once the whistle blew, Eric ran neck and neck with the man until hot dog number 12, when Mr. Mouth hit the wall. Nauseous, weary, cheeks sagging like Droopy Dog, he took baby nibbles on his dogs and sipped his water like a grandmother testing hot coffee as Eric sailed past him to victory.

So Eric, of all people, should have known better than to underestimate an unknown.

Cut to: four years later, in 2001. The defending hot dog champ at this time is Kazutoyo Arai, who set a new record in 2000 with 25 1/8 hot dogs. In the 84 years since the first Nathan's Hot Dog Eating record was set with 13 hot dogs devoured in 12 minutes, the record has still not even doubled.

As George Shea prepares to blow the whistle kicking off the July 4, 2001 competition, Eric stands center stage. Four years after his

    debut, he is now one of the best, having just missed victory in this king-making endeavor one year earlier with 24 hot dogs. Now, chomping at the bit to bring the coveted Mustard Belt, the crystal and gem-bedazzled belt that is the Green Jacket of the competitive eating world, back to the U.S., Eric stands center stage with Arai on his right. On his left is a new competitor, a young Japanese man neither Eric nor any of  

the Americans has seen before. He is slight, barely 130 pounds. Must be one of Arai's crew, Eric thinks, just along for the ride to watch his friend rule the eating world up close.

It is at this moment that Eric comes down with an acute case of winner's disease, the same affliction that struck Mr. Mouth four years earlier as he loaded up on chicken and cola instead of focusing on his goal. Eric looks at the wafer thin Japanese man to his left and he decides he's a trifle, and he begins to toy with him. As Eric pours mustard on his hot dog, he shoots the new guy a "new guy" look, the look that says, "Goodnight, my small friend. Might as well just go home. I'm taking this title." Self-confidence radiates from Eric's face like a death ray. His ego is in charge, his opinion of his tiny opponent telepathically beamed to anyone in his orbit. Arai sees the rooster crowing. He says something to his friend in Japanese, and the two just smile.

Minutes later, George blows the whistle, and the eaters are off and running. Eric feels quick and right, at the top of his game. At the end of three minutes, he has eaten seven hot dogs, a record-breaking pace if he can keep it up. There is only one problem, though, one that George announces in disbelief. By the three-minute mark, Arai's little friend is ahead of Eric. He is, in fact, ahead of everybody.

He has eaten 20 hot dogs.

Eric stares at the mystery man like he has just landed in a silver space ship and emerged with three green heads. Half the eaters at the table stop eating and look on in amazement. The new guy is eating hot dogs like no one has ever done before. He'll grab a dog, snap it in half, toss it in his mouth and make it gone. Meanwhile, he'll dip the bun in water, letting it soften before consuming it. With this method, he's eating a hot dog and bun approximately every 10 seconds.

Oh -- and he's not chewing. He's swallowing the hot dogs whole.

Compared to the new guy, Eric looks like he's having a casual dog at a barbeque. His cheeks are like tight rubber, barely carrying out the chewing mission. By the time George blows the final whistle, the young man hasn't just broken the record. He has destroyed it. In 12


minutes, he has eaten 50 hot dogs. A record that hadn't doubled in 84 years was now just a fraction removed from doubling in one.

The new champion's name is Takeru Kobayashi. In a mere 12 minutes, he has just revolutionized the sport of competitive eating.

Kobayashi -- who lives in Japan, speaks no English and generally comes to the states just for the Nathan's contest, bringing a coterie of fans with him -- has won that contest every year since, and broke his own record in 2004, setting a new mark of 53 1/2. He has also set a mark in hamburgers, eating 69 square burgers in eight minutes. But Kobayashi's dominance over the


past four years has been about more than just records. Kobayashi has changed the way competitive eaters view what they do and who they are. Prior to his achievement, eaters looked at competitive eating as an event, but not a sport. There was little talk of training, conditioning, skill or focus. Since 2001, though, the other eaters have gotten to know Takeru Kobayashi, and his lessons have transformed them.

Within the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), Kobayashi is seen as a sage, a friend and a role model, and eaters talk at great length of his focus, his technique and his secrets. Charles, who once watched Kobayashi devour 25 pounds of rice, says the champ told him that chewing food wastes time, and that in competition, food should be swallowed whole. And while Charles doesn't know this for sure, he believes that Kobayashi tames his gag reflex as sword swallowers do, teasing it with items such as tongue depressors to reduce its sensitivity, thereby allowing large quantities of food to sail down his throat unencumbered. Conti, who calls Kobayashi "not only the greatest athlete in the history of competitive eating, but the greatest athlete in the history of sport," says that Kobayashi imparted valuable wisdom to him that he, in turn, shared with Eric and Charles. But Conti will not share this wisdom with outsiders at this time and will do so only if he ever defeats Kobayashi in competition. It is not known, therefore, what Kobayashi imparted to Conti; it might have been how he begins training for a match two months in advance, slowly building capacity, six pounds at a sitting one day, six and a half the next; or perhaps how he guarantees himself a Zen-like assurance by meditating before competitions, envisioning himself hoisting the Mustard Belt toward the sky in victory, and professing that he can see it no other way. But whatever it was, Conti has taken Kobayashi's philosophies and techniques as gospel. "What Kobayashi did by eating 50 hot dogs," says Conti, "was send a signal to the American eaters that they had to find something that would send them to the next plateau. Since that time, three eaters have broken the 30 hot dog barrier, which is simply unheard of. So I think what he's done is said that anything is humanly possible if you have intestinal fortitude. And American eaters are following suit."

Eric, who studies tapes of Kobayashi's victories, now describes any time spent with the man he once dismissed as a blessing. "He is so awesome and so revered," says Eric, "and every time I see him, I learn something from him. He's great in every facet of the word. A great person, great competitor, great sportsman. An asset to the sport." Eric equates an eventual Kobayashi defeat with putting a man on the moon, and no one in competitive eating sees this as exaggeration. To the eaters, Kobayashi is Mt. Everest. He is the impossible dream they dream of, the unreachable star they would


give their all to reach. Rare is the eater who thinks he or she has a legitimate shot at beating him -- although Rich Shea believes that Sonya Thomas has a chance -- but every eater gives their all in the attempt.

Kobayashi's greatness has changed the outside world's perception of the sport as well. His complete dominance -- taken with the achievements of Thomas and the 130-pound Rich LeFevre, together the top three eaters in the world, and with a combined weight less than that of the No. 4 eater, Eric


Booker -- have led to the unassailable conclusion that in competitive eating, size is not the advantage people had thought. The theory that large men will be the dominant eaters has been debunked. Not only does size not bring you one step closer to victory, but it is now believed by many to be a detriment. This is a major issue for competitive eaters, one they discuss often. Former hot dog champ Ed Krachie even developed the Belt of Fat Theory, which postulates that the more fat you have on your belly, the less room your stomach has to expand, and therefore the less food it can hold. Krachie wrote up his theory and submitted it to the New England Journal of Medicine, which rejected it. The eaters have not. Hardy, in losing the weight he has lost, is just one of the competitors looking at Kobayashi, Thomas and LeFevre, plus the in-shape Conti and Janus, and realizing that the future of this sport will not be in bulk.

But Kobayashi's greatest contribution to the world of competitive eating is his intensity. Sport can be looked at as many things, but if we choose to view it as the epitome of achievement, as setting a physical goal and striving and training and conditioning one's self in whatever manner it takes to become the best in the world, then Kobayashi's approach leaves no doubt that what he's involved in is, undeniably, a sport. "When Kobayashi competes," says Eric, "he sets a certain goal, and if he doesn't make that goal, he feels that he's failed." For a Fox-TV special called Man vs. Beast, Kobayashi faced down a 1,089-pound Kodiak bear in a hot-dog-eating contest. Despite eating 31 hot dogs in two minutes, thirty-six seconds (sans buns), the bear trounced him with 50. Kobayashi was distressed by the loss. Before he met Kobayashi, Eric arrived at competitions unprepared. Now, he trains. He works his craft and does whatever it takes to "let my raw talent shine." Before he met Kobayashi, he participated in one contest a year. Now, he's in 20.

Before he set the American eating world on fire, Kobayashi was already a star in Japan. In one match, he consumed 378 small bowls of noodles totaling 21 pounds in 15 minutes to win that country's TV Champion competition. The American eaters didn't know this on July 4, 2001, but Arai did, which is why he smiled at his friend as Eric preened. When Kobayashi began competing in America, he was listed


at 130 pounds. According to Eric, he is now up to 155, but it's all muscle. Kobayashi was already a god among eaters. Now, he's getting stronger.

Kobayashi did not attend the Matzo Ball Eating Competition -- he does not attend most of the American matches -- but his presence was felt. The eaters showed up rested and ready. They had all been training, from Eric's sojourns to Ben's, to Janus and Conti and others cooking up vats


of matzo balls in the days leading up the event, scarfing them down, studying their texture and making any necessary adjustments. Entering the Friar's Club among the throngs of amused media, there was mirth and merriment, but first there was the will to win. From Eric's reference to several of his fellow eaters as "storied champions" to the IFOCE tattoo etched in jagged serif lettering on Hungry Charles' right arm, these are players who have found the thing for which perseverance and dedication will lead them to victory and preserve their place in the annuls of sport.

As the Matzo Ball Eating Championship draws to a close, scraps of wet matzo strewn across the tablecloth, the media descends for the post-game interviews. Conti hams it up, turning interviewer himself, asking Eric questions about matzo ball texture as a reporter listens in, commenting about the balls' "ping-pong-ball consistency" and saying of Eric's new record, "I don't think anyone's gonna touch that mark for years to come." George flies into PR mode, telling a reporter of the "400 million media impressions" that the IFOCE has generated, then minutes later commenting on the extra jaw strength needed for today's matzo balls due to compacted density and the absorbing of the broth. Eric simply savors his victory and talks about going out for ice cream to celebrate.

Charles will stop commenting on the controversy once the emotion of the moment wears down, but while his ire is still up, he speaks in-depth about the bowl mistake; how Eric should never have received a new one; how the matzo ball remnants in Eric's bowl may have added up to five matzo balls, not to mention certain remnants in the second bowl that remain unquantifiable; and how he had still been eating the scraps from his first bowl when Eric placed his scraps to the side to devour the balls from his second. As Charles exorcizes his anger at the result, it would be easy, given the nature of the event, for one to think that this anger was driven by the cash prize. But knowing what we know about the world of competitive eating, I believe we know better.


Did you miss part I? Read:


Larry Getlen is a freelance writer based in New York City.