Joey Chestnut owes his career in competitive eating to a hot dog-eating bear.
In 2003, Takeru Kobayashi seemed unstoppable. Two years earlier, he ate 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes at the Nathan's Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest, blowing right past the previous world record of 25 hot dogs. A star at the top of his game, Kobayashi appeared on Fox’s “Man vs. Beast,” where he attempted to eat more hot dogs than a Kodiak bear weighing over a thousand pounds. Not surprisingly, the massive animal beat Kobayashi.
But what nobody knew at the time was that this moment proved – at least to Joey Chestnut – that Kobayashi could be beaten.
For Chestnut, it wasn’t just the loss, but what he saw in Kobayashi during the competition.
“It looked like he was scared,” Chestnut told Fox News. “I saw that there was 'quit' in him.”
Chestnut first faced off against Kobayashi at the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest on July 4, 2005. That year, Kobayashi took first place with 49 hot dogs. Chestnut came in third. The following year, Chestnut placed second, losing to Kobayashi by about half a hot dog.
Finally, in 2007, Joey Chestnut ate 66 in 12 minutes, beating Kobayashi by 3 hot dogs.
Since then, Chestnut has taken home the Mustard Belt every year except one (Matt Stonie bested Chestnut in 2015). And while the contest dropped the time limit down to 10 minutes, Chestnut’s numbers have continued to rise.
“When I was younger, I could practice every three to four days,” Chestnut said. “Now, I have to practice once every six to seven days. I know more about my body now. If I had that knowledge when I was younger, who knows how far I could go?”
At the 2018 Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest, Chestnut managed to eat 74 hot dogs in 10 minutes. Considering that the world record was only 25 hot dogs in 2001, that’s a huge leap.
When asked where he thinks the record will top off, Chestnut doesn’t know. “Give me a reason and I’ll eat more hot dogs. If someone eats 90, I’ll eat 91.”
That being said, breaking records isn’t easy. His next milestone, 80 hot dogs, will prove "hard,” Chestnut said. “Even in practice, with perfect conditions, it’s hard. I know somebody could do 80 to 84 though, in the right conditions.”
Getting ready for the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, held every Fourth of July in Coney Island, involves more than just eating a big pile of hot dogs as fast as possible. Chestnut has developed several exercises he believes strengthens his jaw muscles, making it easier to swallow as fast as possible.
It’s been 16 years since Kobayashi lost to the bear, and since then, a lot has changed for Joey Chestnut. He took down his rival — but does Chestnut think that he could take the bear? “I wouldn’t quit,” he said. “I’d go hard, I don’t know.”
“I would’ve tried to distract it,” he added with a chuckle.
Joey Chestnut and Kobayashi are both featured in ESPN’s “30 For 30” documentary “The Good, The Bad, The Hungry,” which premieres on July 2.