It’s 8 P.M. at Coleman’s Bar & Grill, and four of New York’s greatest eaters are getting ready for a practice run. Three dozen hot dogs are on the grill, the raw material for a first round of six-dog sprints, with buns. Tonight, Coleman’s, the name given to Crazy Legs Conti’s griddle-equipped East Village walk-up by his friends, is open only to a select few. These four men are among the top ﬁfteen eaters in the world, and they have work to do. At Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest, they will face an invincible foe, in their own hometown, and almost surely lose, with the whole world watching.
They face “the perfect eater,” as Tim Janus calls him. His name, whispered with downcast eyes, is Takeru Kobayashi. Delicate, quiet, and intense, the 132-pound Kobayashi is the greatest competitive eater of all time. In his legendary first appearance at the Nathan’s contest in 2001, he ate 50 hot dogs in twelve minutes, doubling the world record. At the Krystal Burger Square Off in November, he ate 69 burgers in eight minutes—23 more than the second-place finisher. Rumors circulate that he isn’t human; that the Japanese government had his stomach surgically altered to break the will of the U.S. eating community. But he hasn’t yet.
New York’s competitive eaters believe that under the right circumstances, and with the right training, Kobayashi can be beat. Here’s how they’re gunning for him—and their odds of winning, as calculated by BetUs.com, which is taking wagers on the contest.
Hungry Charles Hardy
Training: Ten pounds of boiled cabbage per sitting.
This former U.S. hot-dog-eating champion from Bed-Stuy worked for years at Central Booking in the Tombs, routinely intimidating drunks and street criminals. Even after losing nearly 100 pounds on the Atkins diet, he is not a man to be taken lightly.
Sitting down to eat at Junior’s in Brooklyn, Hungry Charles is wearing a Yankees jersey and cap, more than twenty carats of diamond jewelry, and a competitive-eating tattoo on his right arm. “From my point of view, until you compete in the Nathan’s contest, you’re an amateur,” he says over a Caesar salad. “I don’t care how many contests you win. That’s where you achieve greatness.
“Hot dogs are the most difficult food for competition. You’re eating two things at once that are both extremely filling—that bread is harder than you think. And the meat is really salty. You get filled up immediately, but you have to keep going. You need that mental focus.” The media attention is unnerving, too, and Hungry Charles advises less-experienced eaters: “Don’t talk for fifteen minutes before the contest; zone out by yourself. Then the world is yours.”
Eric “Badlands” Booker
Training: Ten-to-ﬁfteen-pound capacity training at buffets.
Even more than the other eaters, Badlands is preoccupied with Kobayashi. “Watching him eat is seeing lightning in a bottle, poetry in motion,” he says. Badlands, along with No. 2–ranked Sonya Thomas of Virginia (a.k.a. “the Black Widow”), is one of the only competitive eaters in the U.S. with an outside chance of beating Kobayashi. He has managed 41 hot dogs in a trial run, which puts him in striking distance, but they were skinless, unlike the Nathan’s dogs. “That makes it a lot easier,” he admits.
In his job as a subway conductor on the 7 line, Badlands, “the people’s champion,” is subjected to New Yorkers’ egging him on in a way the other eaters aren’t. “I get the tough love,” he says. “People come up on the train and are like, ‘Yo, how you let that little guy beat you? You can eat 40 hot dogs and him.’ ”
Badlands’s four principles of competitive eating are capacity, strategy, stamina, and focus. The last three are mental, but the physical training required to build capacity can’t be replaced. Like many competitive eaters, his training involves eating food measured out by the pound. He often brings a scale to the buffets where he practices.
The buffet owners don’t like to see him coming, a topic he addresses on his new rap album, Hungry & Focused: “Put a hurtin’ on a food establishment / Owner sees me and the man is adamant / And I know I’m about to be banned / When he’s like, don’t come back, understand? / You eat like a sumo, can’t feed you, man / Around the fifth plate he realized who I am! / They call me Badlands Booker.”
Crazy Legs Conti
Training: “Zen method” of meditative visualization.
Conti is at something of a crossroads in his eating career: “Do I want to be a reality-TV star, or do I want to eat twenty hot dogs and buns in twelve minutes?” Affable and articulate, with his signature dreadlocks and shorts, Conti is the media’s go-to guy for competitive-eating antics. He starred in a documentary, Crazy Legs Conti: Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating, that was released last year. He ate his way out of an eight-foot box filled with popcorn at the Tribeca Film Festival and showed off his oyster-downing skills on Letterman. This month, a top-hatted Crazy Legs is featured in a photo spread in FHM, playing Monopoly with Buffo, the world’s strongest clown, Mets siren Anna Benson, and a chimp.
“Competitive eating is what I live for, but I have to admit that I may have been distracted by the tangential benefits it has brought me,” he says. “It’s the deuce [twenty hot dogs] that’s going to give me the sense of accomplishment and fulfillment. I’ll cry if I do the deuce. It means that much to me.”
Crazy Legs has been training on and off for the Nathan’s contest, but he hasn’t put together a qualifier win yet. Given that the top eaters are chasing a man who ate 53 hot dogs last year, the goal of 20 seems modest. For Crazy Legs, though, Kobayashi is beatable—even if it isn’t by him. “Not a lot of people realize that two years ago, he only managed 44 hot dogs. If he had his worst day ever, and Badlands or Sonya had their best day, there could be an upset.”
Tim “Eater X” Janus
Training: Five-dog sprints; cottage-cheese cross-training.
Talk to Tim Janus about his job on Wall Street, and the handsome, easygoing day trader will laugh off the razor-thin margins. But if you ask him about the upcoming Nathan’s contest, he turns deadly serious. “Right now I’m doing ﬁve-dog sprints, and cross-training to increase my capacity,” he says. “A gallon of water in a minute. Seven pounds of noodles or cottage cheese. But I’m also running four times a week and lifting at the New York Sports Clubs.”
Janus got started in competitive eating “to impress Jodie Foster,” he jokes, and he competes in face-painted character as “Eater X” (a tribute to former WWF wrestler the Ultimate Warrior). He sent shock waves through the eating community when he tied the great Ed “Cookie” Jarvis in chicken wings in one of his first contests. Now veteran eaters see him as the future of the sport. “He has the mental discipline,” says Hungry Charles. “He studies the food, thinks of all the angles.”
As for Janus, who says he’s always been “too timid” with the ladies, he’s found his inner tough guy in competitive eating. “Have you seen Revenge of the Sith?” he asks. “I’m switching over to the Dark Side. I’ve never had the killer instinct. But now I do. I want to carve out a spot out in the world for me. The contest is the gold standard; I don’t feel complete as an eater without it. And I know I can do this.”