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Feeding force

Sports | Takeru Kobayashi has given the competitive eating world its first superstar

Issue: "Into the light," Dec. 3, 2005

It's fair to say Japanese superstar Takeru Kobayashi has set different goals than most athletes. Imagine: For Mr. Kobayashi, there is no pre-game meal. The game is the meal itself. Since bursting on the scene in 2001 by setting the hot dog eating record, Mr. Kobayashi has given the competitive eating world its first superstar. So great is the 27-year-old Japanese man's appetite that he's been able to carve a career out of gorging.

For downing 67 Krystal hamburgers at the Krystal Square Off in Chattanooga, Tenn., Mr. Kobayashi took home a cash prize of $10,000. That's not the only money available. The winner of the Tropicana World Meatball Eating Championship will take home $2,500. He reportedly makes between $150,000 and $250,000 per year in endorsements and prize winnings. Sonya Thomas (a female eater considered second only to Mr. Kobayashi) earned $23,250 just in her nine victories in 2005, to say nothing about paydays from close losses. Mr. Kobayashi's prowess and the novelty of Ms. Thomas even led ESPN to broadcast the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest.

Before Mr. Kobayashi, binge-eating contests were generally reserved for big men with big appetites. The 5-foot-7, 145-pound Mr. Kobayashi has changed it all. Once known only in his native Japan, the diminutive Mr. Kobayashi has become an international celebrity for his combination of freakish ability (he can eat more than 20 pounds of food at once), boyish charm, and unlikely body type. It doesn't hurt that the Japanese eater is willing to do or eat almost anything.

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In 2003, he put his hot dog eating skills up against a Kodiak bear on a Fox television program called Man vs. Beast. Mr. Kobayashi built a quick lead that disintegrated when the bear discovered it could simply lay its head on the table and eat five or six at a time. There's nothing really poignant about losing to a bear-for Mr. Kobayashi, that's about his only competition. Basketball had its Wilt Chamberlain. Boxing its Mohammed Ali. Eating has Mr. Kobayashi: a champion so unlikely, he made his obscure sport almost popular.

Record breaker

If someone is to challenge Mr. Kobayashi in the next few years, it may just be Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas, so named because of her ability to destroy larger males in competition. Ms. Thomas, a Korean-American who works as a manager at Burger King, made waves last July at the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest when she pounded down 37 hot dogs in 12 minutes. Her record book reads like the menu for a Thanksgiving feast, albeit an odd one. While Mr. Kobayashi focuses on major eating events like the Krystal burger munch, the 99-pound Ms. Thomas has racked up records in 22 obscure eating competitions. Here are her world records:

Asparagus-5.75 pounds of deep-fried asparagus spears in 10 minutes

Baked beans-8.4 pounds in 2 minutes 47 seconds

Brats-35 Johnsonville Brats in 10 minutes

Cheesecake-11 pounds in 9 minutes

Chicken nuggets-80 in 5 minutes

Chicken wings-167 in 32 minutes

Crab cakes-40 in 12 minutes

Hard-boiled eggs-65 in 6 minutes 40 seconds

Fruitcake-4 pounds, 14.25 ounces in 10 minutes

Hamburgers-Seven quarter-pound "Thickburgers" in 10 minutes

Jambalaya-Nine pounds of crawfish jambalaya in 10 minutes

Lobster-44 lobsters totaling 11.3 pounds in 12 minutes

Meatballs-Six pounds in 12 minutes

Oysters-432 in 10 minutes

Pizza-Six extra-large slices in 15 minutes

Pulled pork-23 sandwiches in 10 minutes

Sweet potato casserole-8.62 pounds in 11 minutes

Tacos-43 soft tacos in 11 minutes

Toasted ravioli-4 pounds in 12 minutes

Turducken-7.75 pounds Thanksgiving Dinner in 12 minutes

Vienna sausage-8.31 pounds in 10 minutes

Quesadillas-31.5 4-inch cheese quesadillas in 5 minutes

Around the Horn

So much for a budding NFL powerhouse. At the season's outset, it appeared the Philadelphia Eagles were the class of the NFC. Now they'll struggle to finish third in their division. First, star wide receiver Terrell Owens began his mini-series of drama, eventually leading to his dismissal from the team. Now, star quarterback Donovan McNabb will likely miss the rest of the season with a hernia. Coach Andy Reid won't admit his club has packed it in for the season, but the club will soon be looking to 2006.

It had to end at some point. And when tennis star Roger Federer took his 35-game win streak to the Tennis Masters Cup in China on a bum ankle, one could expect he'd soon lose. But to David Nalbandian? The relatively unknown tennis pro from Argentina upset Mr. Federer to end his win streak. But Mr. Nalbandian was unapologetic. "Roger, don't worry, it's not your last final," Mr. Nalbandian joked. "You're going to win a lot of tournaments, so let me keep this one."

The pipeline from Japan to Seattle is in full effect. The Mariners, a baseball club now known for landing top Japanese talent, signed Kenji Jojima, a power-hitting catcher, to a three-year, $16.5 million deal. "This was a unique opportunity for us," general manager Bill Bavasi said. "We had a chance to acquire offense at a premium position and we went after it aggressively." Many consider it a can't-miss deal for the team that landed two All Stars in outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and closer Kazuhiro Sasaki.


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