Regardless of where you personally think competitive eating (events sanctioned by the Major League Eating organization) fall on the scale of "sport," just know that the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest draws around nine million viewers to ESPN's various outlets every July 4 and packs the streets of Coney Island with celebrants of our nation's birthday. (Also, you can wager on it, which inherently takes it about 95 percent of the way to a "sport" designation.)
So competitive eating is, at the very least "spectacle" if not "sport," and on a steamy Tuesday afternoon along the Coney Island boardwalk, at the corner of Surf and Stillwell, the legendary Joey Chestnut took his one-man dynasty into double-digit territory, setting a contest record of 72 hot dogs and buns eaten in the allotted ten minute span, easily outdistancing upstart Carmen Cincotti, who ate 62 hot dogs and buns, and former champion Matt Stonie, who came in with 48.
As a personal aside, I had an up close view of the contest, having been fortunate enough to be invited to judge the event, thanks to my good friend Ken Hoffman of CultureMap finagling me an invite. As a further bit of good fortune, because of some travel issues for a few of the judges, I found myself "on the bag" for Stonie's efforts and, in the women's contest, for the legendary Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas.
Needless to say, this prominent placement allowed me to find my way onto television plenty of times during ESPN's broadcast...
Coincidentally, my two eaters, Thomas and Stonie, were thought to be shoo-ins to finish second to the clear-cut favorites, Chestnut and three- (now four-) time champ Miki Sudo. In an even odder coincidence, both of my eaters actually finished THIRD in their respective divisions, each bringing his or her "C+" game, behind the eater directly to the audience's left of the champion — Cincotti in the men's contest and Michelle Lesco (32.5 dogs and buns eaten) in the women's.
The entire contest and, I'll use the word again, "spectacle" probably deserves a much longer story digging into its growth, its historical significance and the continued progression from underworld activity to recognized sport, at least for one day out of the year. Chestnut unto himself is an incredible story since he has now won ten of the last 11 titles, with one blip in 2015 losing to Stonie when he admittedly was "kind of mentally out of it" being his only Coney Island blemish in that timeframe.
That said, here are a few quick observations on the questions and comments I received most often over the past 24 hours:
1. Do you get hit with soggy bun shrapnel in the judges' pit?
YES, you do get hit with soggy bun shrapnel down in the pit of judges...and they don't even give us smocks!
2. Did you talk to the Black Widow? Did she remember you?
I've mentioned this before — and by "before" I mean yesterday (and every day, really) — but I was an eater in the one and only Kolache Factory eating contest in 2007. After the contest, as the competitors were chatting casually and exchanging war stories (as a one-time eater, I didn't have much material), Thomas came up and asked me how many kolaches I ate. When I told her the number (seven in eight minutes), she laughed in my face and walked away. I still haven't recovered...
We meet again, Black Widow ... pic.twitter.com/qwFL4hw6cr— Sean Pendergast (@SeanTPendergast) July 4, 2017
No, she didn't remember, and YES, I judged it fair and square. I'm reputable, if nothing else.
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3. How great are the introductions?
In a word, remarkable. Those are performed by George Shea, who along with his brother, Richard, runs Major League Eating, the governing body for competitive eating, which they founded back in 1997 as the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE) after taking over public relations for the Nathan's contest around that time.
George Shea is, simply put, the MVP of the Nathan's event. Yes, Chestnut and Sudo are the champions, but what people don't realize watching at home is that the entire EVENT on July 4 is about four hours. There is a ton of standing around and non-eating time. Shea single-handedly keeps it from being "dead time," by engaging the crowd, performing (his extremely white rap style is the greatest Coney Island July 4 tradition that does not involve tubed meat) and bringing up various Coney Island luminaries, like the Bunettes (cheerleaders dressed in Nathan's garb) and, this year, Coney Island's own Stephon Marbury, who gave away hundreds of pairs of shoes for the occasion.
4. Is Ken Hoffman Coney Island royalty?
Well, let's just say he sealed the "five-peat" on Tuesday, judging the dog eating for Sudo and Chestnut, after judging for both of their wins in 2016, and on Stonie's win in 2015. They'll do a "30 for 30" on Hoffy someday, for sure.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.