Joey Chestnut looked like he had just come from a massage. The mustard yellow belt hung off his shoulder. He stood next to the ESPN reporter for his pre-contest interview and spouted off cliches without a care in the world. Like a President in his final term, he didn’t have to answer to anybody anymore.
That should’ve been the first sign.
It had always been too easy for Chestnut since Kobayashi left. Wins No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7 and No. 8 in the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog eating contest came and went without a challenger. Now he was looking for No. 9 and it might as well have been a forgone conclustion. The pre-game coverage showed a graphic of the most consecutive titles in any sport. Chestnut’s No. 9 would tie the record.
He had eaten 61 hot dogs in 10 minutes last year for the title. His next closest competition was Matt “Megatoad” Stonie, who downed 56. This year Stonie’s number was down. He qualified for Nathan’s by eating 48 hot dogs.
It was over before it began.
Then, right before the contest started, ESPN aired another interview clip with Chestnut.
“I’m just hoping I can do it one more time,” an introspective Chestnut said.
That was the first sign.
Chestnut seemed different there. His heart wasn’t in it. I wrote in my notebook: “Does this mean Joey Chestnut is going to retire?”
(Yes I took notes during a hot dog eating contest. This is serious business. I have no regrets.)
Right before the competition began, the ESPN
sideline splash zone reporter dropped the bomb. Joey Chestnut had broken up wit his fiancee, the same one who was his eating coach, the same one he proposed to on the Nathan’s Famous stage a year earlier.
According to the New York Post, the two split because of Chestnut’s hectic competition schedule. They called it off weeks before the wedding.
A distracted, nostalgic, coach-less Joey Chestnut returned to the scene of his now ill-fated proposal to try to win his ninth competition in a row.
Like a mafia housewife, we chose to ignore the signs. We ignored Chestnut’s distraction, his overconfidence, his lack of real competitors to push him. We ignored the fact that Matt Stonie is better in the big moments, that he coasted to 48 hot dogs in qualifying against little competition. In the “Down Goes Chestnut” bonanza we even ignored that Chestnut, with all the distractions, still ate 60 hot dogs, that Stonie’s individual effort was one of the greatest we’ve ever seen.
As time ended and you wondered why the announcer wasn’t freaking out like you were when it became clear that Stonie won, Joey Chestnut stood doubled over on the table, in front of the remnants of the 60 hot dogs he had shoved in his mouth.
It might’ve been indigestion, but Chestnut looked shocked and a little bereaved, like he just lost everything and didn’t know what to do with his life. For the last eight years, Chestnut’s identity had been hot dog eating champion. Now he wasn’t.
In his post-contest interview Chestnut, stumbled around, not able to say much.
“I did bad,” Chestnut finally managed. “He deserved to win. Dang.”
Chestnut knows he threw this one away, knows he didn’t train as hard as he should’ve, knows he underestimated Stonie.
The signs were there.
“I’ve been looking for competition for a long time,” Chestnut said in his postgame interview. “Now I have it.”
Now there’s another sign. Let’s not ignore this one. For the first time since Kobayashi left (R.I.P. to his career), the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest in intriguing again.
Long live Megatoad.
Other notes from the event:
- Direct from my notebook: Eric “Badlands” Booker might die in this competition.
- Best intro: “Three days ago, he broke up with his girlfriend and euthanized his dog so he could create a vast, black void inside that he can fill with hot dogs and buns.”
- Gideon Oji qualified with 16 hot dogs. He’s a Division II basketball player at Clayton State. Oji averaged 0.9 points per game last year.
- Oji finished with 19 hot dogs eaten. Clayton State put it on the front page of their athletics website. Their lead photo is very obviously a picture of a television:
- Shout out to Clayton State
- Best cross-sport reference from the color guy, in reference to Matt Stonie: “The Jordan Spieth of tubed beef.”