|Move over, Tiger|
By Darren Rovell
BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- At 8:01 a.m. Thursday, Megumi Suzuki and her six friends were the first to nudge the barricades set up at the corner of Surf and Stillwell to keep the crowd from getting too close to the competitors at Coney Island. Despite the fact the event was not scheduled to take place for four hours, the action was understandable, given that they had traveled more than 6,500 miles, with their video cameras in tow, primarily to see this.
Their heartthrob is Takeru Kobayashi, a svelte-looking professional competitive eater from Japan who won his second consecutive Nathan's Famous international hot dog eating contest and the coveted Mustard Yellow Championship belt on Thursday afternoon. In the process, he surpassed his incredible record of 50 hot dogs and buns -- set last year -- by a half a wiener, and made his nearest competitor, Eric "Badlands" Booker, who only ate 26 hot dogs and buns, look like an anorectic.
Last year, when Kobayashi doubled the previous record held by countryman and three-time champ Kazutoyo Arai, the event's promoters had to scribble along with each hot dog he ate, since they only made numbers -- which are flashed to the crowd -- through 30. This year, finally realizing that they were dealing with one of the most dominant athletes of all time, the numbers went into the high 60s.
"I myself compared him to Tiger Woods last year," said Rich Shea, president of the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), which sanctions 50 events each year. "I've often heard people say he's the Michael Jordan of eating. But I think to associate Michael Jordan with Kobayashi is a slight against Kobayashi ... if you look at the margins with which this guy wins."
"You don't see Jordan always scoring twice as much as the next closest scorer," said Mike Gross, a 28-year-old from Hoboken, N.J., who was holding a sign with "Kobe" written on it.
"I'm a huge Boston Celtics fan and last night I went back and watched the tape of Kobayashi last year from the Fourth of July," said Crazy Legs Conti, who holds the record for oyster eating (168 in 10 minutes), but could only muster 18 hot dogs at Coney Island. "Then I watched Larry Bird in the 1986 playoff series and at the end of the night, (it was obvious who is better)."
Many who qualified for the contest and witnessed Kobayashi's act last year knew they were just coming for the free trip and free food. But Booker says he believes that Kobayashi can be beaten. Booker changed eating methods after seeing the way Kobayashi broke the hot dogs in half and shoved them into his mouth last year. His next step, he says, is to look more like Kobayashi.
That won't be easy. He weighed 430 pounds three months ago, but claimed -- before the contest -- that he was down to 400. "What I plan on doing after this contest is to lose as much as Kobe weighs, and I'm going to be so awesome, I'm going to be unbelievable," said the 35-year-old who holds the world egg-eating title, having devoured 38 hard-boiled eggs in eight minutes.
Kobayashi's not sweating anything Booker tries. Although he says that he's worried another Japanese eater might eventually take his title, there's no American who has even come close. Edward "Cookie" Jarvis, the IFOCE 2001 Rookie of the Year, ate a 72-ounce steak and sides in 20 minutes. But the 6-foot-6, 400-something-pounder only finished 17 hot dogs at the competition.
Although there's plenty of momentum stateside for the 6-year-old International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), the sport is much bigger in Japan, where cooking and eating shows are among the highest-rated television programs.
"I'm so glad that some people even consider that I am the top athlete in this field," said Kobayashi, through his translator Hiroshi Kumatani. "I never met Ichiro before, but he is one of my role models and I'm aiming to be like him."
Kobayashi reportedly makes between $150,000 and $250,000 a year. Four things make Kobayashi the champion that he is: youth, body makeup, strategy and confidence.
Being the second youngest competitor in the contest at 24 is the easy part. And having the gift of a swift tongue or esophagus -- or whatever makes his internal plumbing function so efficiently -- is strictly a matter of genetics.
As far as strategy goes, others have mimicked his "Solomon" method -- where he breaks the hot dog in half -- but none of them do it as well as he does. He also seems to have the skinny thing down pat. Despite gaining almost seven pounds in 12 minutes from the contest, he said he's never weighed more than 148 pounds.
Mentally, Kobayashi is No. 1.
He was the last competitor to leave his hotel room in the morning for the bus trip from Manhattan to Coney Island. Alone in his hotel room, he says, he practices image training -- focusing on images of himself succeeding.
It must work. As Kobayashi finished his final chews and held back his "winning meal" long enough so as not to regurgitate and get disqualified, a realization seemed to come over him -- much like a red-shirted Tiger while walking up the green on the 18th on a Sunday on his way to another Grand Slam victory. And just like Tiger, he could finally allow himself to enjoy it.
Tiger already has his stable of super fans. But if no challenger comes along soon on the competitive eating circuit, Megumi Suzuki and her friends will have to show up a bit earlier each year.
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.