Over the next few months, while waiting for Slider to be published, I’ll be paying tribute to the heroes of the sport.
Weight: 131 lbs
(at first Nathan’s appearance)
Without Takeru Kobayashi, you would probably never have heard of Competitive Eating as a sport.
Sure, the Nathan’s Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contesthas been going on since 1916, when an Irish immigrant named Jim Mullen devoured thirteen hot dogs in twelve minutes.* Since then, the contest has been held on the Fourth of July at the Nathan’s Famous stand on Coney Island.** Mullen’s record was broken, then broken again and again, but the nascent sport was little noticed outside Coney Island and environs until Takeru Kobayashi appeared on the scene.
In 2000, the record was held by Kazutoya Arai, a 100-pound Japanese mattress salesman, at 25½ dogs in 12 minutes. (Note that it took eight-four years for Mullen’s record to be not-quite-doubled.)
But in 2001, Takeru Kobayashi demolished Arai’s record by inhaling an astonishing 50 hotdogs. Second place that year went to Eric "Badlands" Booker, who managed “only” 26.
At the time, Kobayashi weighed in at 131 pounds. He spoke virtually no English, but his speed, capacity, and unusual technique communicated volumes. Kobayashi’s breakthrough technique was to separate the hot dogs from the buns, dip the buns in water while shoving two naked dogs at a time into his mouth, then follow them with the sodden buns.
Kobayashi easily won the Nathan’s contest for the next five years. In 2007 he set a personal record of 63 hotdogs, but was defeated by the much larger and equally talented Joey Chestnut, who ate 66.
Kobayashi's reign at Nathan’s ended shortly after when a contract dispute with Major League Eating (MLE)—the organization that sanctions the Nathan’s contest and most other eating events in the United States—banned him from MLE sanctioned contests.
Nevertheless, Kobayashi persisted. He performs internationally, and is credited with eight Guinness eating records.
Takeru Kobayashi singlehandedly changed competitive eating from publicity event to a bona fide big league sport.
* Mullen's feat may well be apocryphal.
** There are several gaps in the record up until 1978.