16 September 2016
Every professional sport has its Hall-of-Famers, but it’s rare when an athlete comes along who is so uniquely talented that he actually revolutionizes the entire sport. For basketball it was Wilt Chamberlain who transformed a horizontal game into a league dominated by big men who hovered above the rim. In football, Lawrence Taylor led to the emergence of much bigger and more athletic offensive tackle. And in the world of competitive eating (yes, it's a sport), the man who forever changed the game is known simply as Kobi.
To understand the impact of Kobi (whose full name is Takeru Kobayashi) one must understand the history of competitive eating. In the late 1800’s, eating contests – pies, watermelon, corn – became popular at county fairs and carnivals. Early events included an 1899 Welsh rarebit-eating tournament and, at The Manhattan Fat Men’s Club in 1909, a competition involving oysters, steak, rolls, coffee and pies. The first Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest – by far the biggest and most famous competitive eating contest – began in 1916 when, according to company lore, founder Nathan Handwerker challenged four men to consume as many hotdogs as possible in 12 minutes. The winner, Jim Muller, a Brooklyn construction worker, downed 10.
By the end of the century, competitive eating was still more of a sideshow than a mainstream sporting event. For the Nathan's contest, there were only a few thousand spectators. Then came the 4th of July, 2001. Kobi, a shy 23 year-old from Nagano, Japan stepped onto the Nathan’s stage. No one expected much from the 5’ 7”, 131-pounder. But when the contest was over, Kobi had devoured 50 hotdogs, nearly doubling the previous world record of 25 ⅛, and in doing so, started a competitive eating revolution.
“It’s impossible to overestimate what he did,” says competitive eater Yasir Salem, profiled in the Fullness episode (#6) on the Prince Street podcast. “In our sport it’s comparable to busting through the four-minute mile.”
Kobi did what most mavericks do: he re-imagined the problem. He didn’t ask how could he increase the volume in his stomach, but how could he make those hotdogs easier to eat? Prior to the 2001 contest, Kobi began experimenting with various techniques and developed two game-changers. The first was the ‘Solomon Method’ (based on a story about King Solomon) in which he removed the hotdog from the bun, split it in half and ate both halves at once. The second was ‘dipping,’ where he dunked the bun into a cup of water (to break down the excess starch), squeezed out the excess fluid and popped it into his mouth as a tiny ball. “Before Kobi it was guys simply trying to eat fast,” explains Salem. “But he changed the sport using his mind. That type of thinking still affects all of us to this day.”
The top competitive eaters caught on quickly. They began looking at speed-eating as a science. They worked on honing their efficiency, technique and precision. “We started deconstructing the process,” explains Salem. They asked new questions: how big a bite to take, how many times to chew, when to alternate between chewing and swallowing. “Some of the top eaters, myself included, started videotaping ourselves as we tried out new methods,” says Salem. “Then we’d use Xcel spreadsheets to track and analyze the progress.” Limits once thought impossible were regularly surpassed. Those normally averaging 25 hotdogs were soon reaching 40 and 50.
The startling consumption wasn’t limited to franks. Buoyed by the staggering results and rising popularity of Kobi, Major League Eating (MLE), the sanctioning body of competitive eating, formed in 1997, now holds 80-100 eating contests across the country (and a handful internationally) in a variety of foods, from tiramisu and wings to Peeps and poutine.
Kobi went on to win six-straight Nathan’s hotdog titles (’01-’06), became the sport’s first household name and officially put competitive eating on the map. Yet his groundbreaking innovations would prove to come back and, well, bite him in the ass. New, talented stars emerged. In the 2007 Nathan’s contest, Joey Chestnut, then a 23 year-old student at San Jose State, dethroned the Japanese champion 66 to 63. Kobi would never win another Nathan’s Hotdog Eating Contest again.
Then, in 2010, Kobi's career took an unexpected turn. After a contractual dispute over sponsorship money with MLE, Kobi was not invited to participate in the July 4th event. Yet that day, wearing a ‘FREE KOBI’ shirt, he showed up at Coney Island. After Chestnut claimed his fourth consecutive title, Kobi climbed on the stage and was subsequently dragged away and arrested. The world’s most famous competitive eater spent the night of Independence Day in jail. He’s never reconciled with MLE. Kobi now makes a living from other competitive eating contests and appearance fees at random gigs that have included eating pizza at a fan’s Superbowl party and, for the opening of a self-storage facility, cupcakes. Despite his MLE exile, many fans and eaters hope that he’ll one day return to Superbowl of this sport at Nathan's on Coney Island. “I still think he’d be one of the best,” says Salem of Kobi. “I don’t know if he’d be a champion, but it’d be a nice fight.”