Hot Dog King Crowned

He gorged, and gulped, and nearly gagged.

And then, in a last-minute feeding frenzy, Takeru Kobayashi of Japan -- the Michael Jordan of hot dog eating -- defended his world title Thursday by gobbling a world record 50 franks in just 12 minutes.

Antacid, anyone?

The reed-thin Kobayashi plowed through an average of one hot dog every 14.25 seconds to insure he would retain the mustard yellow championship belt in the 87th competition at Nathan's Famous in Coney Island.

The 5-foot-7 Kobayashi, despite the 94-degree heat and stifling humidity, managed to barely best his 2001 mark of 50 hot dogs.

"The heat was inhuman," said Rich Shea, spokesman for the event organizer, the International Federation of Competitive Eating. "This proves he is the finest athlete in the world."

Immediately before setting the record, Kobayashi -- known to his competition as "Tsunami" -- looked a bit ill. But after finishing off the record-setting frank, he regained his composure and flashed the crowd a thumbs up.

As he did last year, the 24-year-old Kobayashi employed the "Solomon method" -- snapping the hot dogs in half, then simultaneously shoving both pieces into his mouth.

Since 1996, the Japanese have dominated the annual Fourth of July competition. The only U.S. winner since then was New Jersey's Steve Keiner in 1999.

The reigning U.S. champion, Eric "Badlands" Booker of Copiague, N.Y., polished off 26 franks to nip third-place finisher Oleg Zhornitsky of Brooklyn by half a dog.

The contest originated in 1916 at the original Nathan's restaurant on Stillwell Avenue, in the shadow of the Cyclone rollercoaster (although the hot dog eat-off is 11 years older).

Prior to the contest, Kobayashi was the lightest of the 20 competitors, weighing in at 113 pounds. After his record-setting performance, his weight had ballooned to 129, Shea said.