In one of the weirder federal holiday traditions in America, Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, takes place every Independence Day. The 2001 event will go down as a turning point for the event as a 23-year-old skinny Japanese man named Takeru Kobayashi burst onto the Brooklyn stage and stole the show.
Kobayashi not only broke the contest’s all-time record of 25 dogs consumed before his entry, he doubled it. Four dozen plus two dogs down the gullet in 12 minutes. God bless America! Or Japan! Who cares about World War II? The Coney Island phenomenon began. And his status grew with six straight wins at the competitive eating showcase, breaking his own record three more times in that span.
Yet when Nathan’s holds the event this year, you shouldn’t expect Kobayashi to be vying for the yellow mustard championship belt. He hasn’t since 2009. He refuses to sign an exclusive contract with Major League Eating (MLE), the chowdown’s sanctioning body. This isn’t a British Open PGA vs. LIV Golf situation.
The man who brought all-time intrigue to the event, and truly popularized competitive eating, won’t be at the art form’s Super Bowl. It’s hard to imagine, but Kobayashi is only 44. I’m not exactly sure what the prime age is for competitive eating but there must be some veteran years gone by the wayside by holding out.
According to a 2010 New York Times story, Kobayashi had a dispute with MLE surrounding the exclusivity rights involved in signing a contract. MLE allegedly barred its athletes from earning money in other competitive eating events. The contracts also gave MLE the right to negotiate outside revenue opportunities, like sponsorships and media appearances, like the NIL of today. MLE would allegedly earn 20 percent of those profits for setting up external cash flow.
I understand the MLE dispute from both sides. Kobayashi brought competitive eating to the masses. If he wanted to do what he pleases because of his Godfather-like status, so be it. Complaining about the rules intended to make everything fair and possibly get you rich at the same time also should be an easy decision. Sign a contract and try to end the reign of Joey Chestnut.
Chestnut started competing at the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest in 2005, losing twice to Kobayashi before the 2007 start of his dominance. Head-to-head on July 4, Chestnut holds a 3-2 advantage, winning every event over the last 15 years but one, a 2015 upset victory by Matt Stonie. Chestnut could only eat 60 hot dogs that year compared to Stonie’s 62. Every other year but 2015 since his first win, Chestnut has been victorious. He’s even pushed the event’s record to 76 dogs, or 6 1/3 frankfurters gulfed per minute.
The 2010 event wasn’t without Kobayashi however. Chestnut won easily, but his former rival was arrested for trying to jump on stage after the eating had stopped. Some argue that he wanted to congratulate Chestnut, others say he wanted to disrupt the event. Back then, a Kobayashi-less Nathan’s showcase came with more of an asterisk. In Aug. 2010, Kobayashi had all charges dropped against him. By 2013, ESPN had lost more than 41 percent of its event viewership without Kobayashi.
Kobayashi clearly cares about competitive eating as much as anyone. Want proof? How important must an event be when you’re double-booked to skip your brother’s wedding? Unless you have another sibling getting married at the exact same time in another location, which is horrible family planning, I can’t think of any. If you’re Kobayashi, skipping seeing your brother eat his wedding cake as a newly married man wasn’t more important than eating hot dogs. That’s how the legend of the Japanese competitive eater was born. In 2001, Kobayashi’s brother said “I do” on America’s Independence Day. Kobayashi gave an approval of his own, to 50 hot dogs down the gullet in 12 minutes.
On America’s 225th birthday, Kobayashi debuted what later became known as the “Solomon Method” at the 2001 event, a commonly used technique in competitive hot dog eating events today. He broke each dog in half and ate them at the same time. He then soaked the bun in liquid, most now use water or lemonade and consumed it separately.
A decade later, in his second year refusing to compete in the Nathan’s contest, Kobayashi held his own event, eating 69 hot dogs, seven more than Chestnut did on stage. He’s continued to host hot-dog related events in Brooklyn on July 4, although his website claims he hasn’t competed in an officially sanctioned food-eating competition since Aug. 2014. As you watch Chestnut win his 15th title in 16 years, know his greatest rival popularized the method he used to gain fame. Even if Kobayashi is retired, his legacy will live on as long as Nathan’s serves hot dogs.