BY RYAN PETZAR
Bill Simmons, the five-time Wing Bowl champion they call “El Wingador,” is serious about what he does for a living these days. “I gotta get my mind settled. I don’t really play around with this too much,” he said in a voicemail to me after I asked him to meet with me and teach me how he manages to eat chicken wings so fast during the Wing Bowl.
According to judges, Simmons ate 254 wings in 30 minutes to finish in second place in last year’s Wing Bowl. Jonathan “Super” Squib ate just one wing more than Bill and walked home with the $20,000 cash prize. Wingador, who just turned 50, is focused on defeating the three-time defending champion to claim his sixth Wing Bowl crown.
But just how do men (and the occasional woman) manage to eat so many wings so fast? Simple math tells us that in order to eat 255 wings in 30 minutes, Squib was eating at a pace of about 8.5 wings per minute. That means that Squib and Wingador were spending just 7.5 seconds on each wing. The mind boggles at that pace.
When on the stage, “I’m a machine,” Simmons says without an ounce of sarcasm or irony. And when you see him eating wings you believe it because “mechanical” is the only word that can really be used to describe the process.
That said, how tough can it really be? Pretty damn tough, as it turns out, but not for the reasons you’d probably expect.
Wingador is a giant of a man, standing 6-feet-5 and weighing in at around 330 lbs. He dwarfs me, and at 6-2, 260 lbs., that isn’t an easy thing to do. But make no mistake, Simmons isn’t a slob. He’s a professional and he’s dedicated to keeping his body tuned for maximum performance. With $20,000, a brand new Camaro and -- most importantly to him -- his reputation on the line, Wingador approaches Wing Bowl XX with the mentality of a prize fighter training for a title bout.
Simmons’ training starts as early as four months in advance of Wing Bowl, where he begins preparing his stomach by eating a whopping 10-15 pounds of food and drinking over two gallons of water every day. To his credit, he tries to stick to healthy foods. Rastelli Foods, for whom he advertises, provides him with six-pound bags of salmon and boneless chicken breasts. “I used to eat cheese steaks and stuff but healthy food just makes you feel better,” he advises.
Simmons will still indulge with the occasional entire pizza and downed a pair of chicken cheese steaks doused with ketchup during our interview. A few weeks prior, Simmons set an unofficial world record by eating 32 meatballs in a minute. (Guinness was not able to send out a judge in time to be able to certify it as an official world record.)
“One thing I don’t do is eat wings,” he told me. He likes to prepare his stomach by stretching it out with carb-heavy pastas and rice. About two weeks prior to the main event, he’ll “bang out a quick fifty just to get my rhythm going.” Those fifty wings, he says without even a bit of braggadocio, usually take him about four minutes, forty seconds to eat.
That jibes with last year’s Wing Bowl performance, where he ate a record-setting 150 wings in the first 14-minute round of the competition.
“The only reason I can do all this is because I work out like a psycho,” he says. His exercise regimen during training consists of plenty of walking and weight lifting in the morning followed by two miles on the treadmill at night to help burn off some of the calories he’s eaten through the course of the day. Just how many calories does he eat? “I try not to think about that,” he laughed as he ran a hand over his trademark closely cropped bleach-blonde hair, “because I know it’s not good for me.”
That the Wing Bowl competitors engage in all kinds of gluttony in preparation for the event is hardly surprising. The thing that shocked me the most is Simmons’ dedication to training the muscles his body uses for eating.
“It’s all about your jaw strength and stamina," he said. "During my first Wing Bowl, my jaw tired out and I couldn’t eat any more.”
I can attest to that; after trying my hand at eating some wings as fast as I could, my jaw was more warn out than it’s ever been in my entire life after only three-and-a-half minutes. Granted, the wings I was eating were far bigger than the competition-sized wings used during the Wing Bowl, but I could hardly speak.
To build strength and endurance in his jaw muscles, Simmons employs two techniques. The first is to chew on frozen Tootsie Rolls for hours on end. I tried to do this on my own and was unable to chew even a single frozen roll. Also, he recently began to eat stale soft pretzels. If you’ve ever tried to eat a day-old Philly style soft pretzel you know that it’s anything but soft.
“I don’t even eat ’em.” he says, “I just chew them and spit them out.”
I asked Dr. Arthur Washburn of Temple University School of Medicine's anatomy department about Wingador’s theory on jaw strength. He told me that there are four major muscles that control “mastication,” or more simply “chewing:” the masseter, temporalis, and the medial pterygoid muscles control the closing, or chewing, motions of the jaw. The lateral pterygoid muscle controls the side-to-side, grinding actions. Can these muscles really be strengthened like Wingador claims?
"They're skeletal muscles," he told me, "so they could be strengthened just like any other muscle in the body. It's the same concept as when you go to the gym and work on your quads or lats."
In addition to strengthening his jaw, Wingador focuses on strengthening a muscle that I never would have expected, called the first dorsal interrosseous muscle.
“Check this out,” he told me as he clenched his thumb and index finger together. As he did this, a bump roughly the size of a small grape appeared in the fleshy part of his hand between the knuckles of his index finger and thumb. I had never seen anything like that before. He invited me to touch it, and sure enough it was as solid as a body builder’ bicep.
The secret to Wingador’s speed is simply putting an entire wing in his mouth, using his massive jaw strength to bite down on it, and use his freakishly strong hands to tear the bones right out of the wing. The result is a totally clean wing and a mouthful of meat which he hardly even chews.
“You gotta just swallow it, he said.
That brings us to the third pillar of El Wingador’s secret to success: mental toughness. Tearing the meat right off of a chicken wing like he describes isn’t particularly tricky, but to swallow a mouthful of unchewed meat is incredibly tough. In fact, your body physically does not want you to do it.
Millions of years of evolution have led to the neurological response that we call the gag reflex. When you gag, your body is trying to get whatever made you gag out of your system be it in your mouth or in your stomach.
Suppressing the reflex is tough. Damn tough. And it’s damn tougher still with a gut full of a dozen-plus pounds of food. As they say in the Wing Bowl, if you heave you leave. So Wingador trains himself to stay calm and focused, which helps him to control his body and ignore the reflexive signals it’s sending his brain.
“It’s a mental thing,” he said. “You want to stop eating. Your body wants you to stop. But you just put yourself in another world.
“You just space out and go into a trace then boom,” he adds, as he gestures to a pile of wing bones in front of him “You’re right here."
Last year, Wingador changed his pre-Wing Bowl routine at the suggestion of his doctor. In years past, he would eat a massive breakfast the day before the contest and then fast until the event started. However, his doctor told him that food actually stays in the digestive system for over 24 hours and advised him to fast after breakfast two days before the event starts. His final meal was a huge breakfast on Wednesday morning, followed by a day of drinking chicken broth.
“On Friday, you couldn’t even talk to me I was so hungry,” he said. “Those first ten plates were just like a breakfast for me.”
El Wingador likes his chances for taking home the title in Wing Bowl XX. He’s convinced that the only reason he lost to Squib last year was because Wing Bowl judges had turned a blind eye to some of the contest’s rules.
“He had a mouthful of food still,’’ Simmons said. “He was chewing as they put the crown on him. The rules say you have to swallow the chicken for the wings to count.”
But Wingador isn’t a sore loser.
“He’s young,” he said. “He’s going to be winning this thing for a long time.”
His other major competitor, the legendary Nathan’s hot dog eating contest winner Takeru Kobayashi, doesn’t really concern Wingador.
“This is not just about how much you can eat,” he says as he begins to get animated. “This is a bone-in contest. I think he’ll have problems with the bones. And jaw strength has been a factor for him in the past.”
While many Wing Bowl contestants earned their spot by winning local wing eating contests and may not be taking the event seriously, most of the competitors are focused. To listen to Wingador talk about his strategy is exactly like talking to an athlete preparing for their sport. He’s laser-focused on winning, although he admits that at 50 years of age, he’d be pleased with a top-three finish.
“After winning this thing so many times, you better believe there’s pressure on me,” he said. “But really all I want to do is go out there and put on a good show. I just want to entertain these people.”
El Wingador is a man who has dedicated himself to pushing his body past its limits for you, Philadelphia. Sure, the Wing Bowl is no World Series or Stanley Cup Final. There won’t be a tickertape parade for the winner. But the feeling he gets on stage in front of 20,000 screaming fans at the Wells Fargo Center?
“I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” he said with a smile.
And you can tell he’s a man that means it.