By Ryan Petzar
Takeru Kobayashi has reached a wholly unique level of stardom here in America.
It’s a kind of stardom where you might not recognize him at first sight. You might not even recognize his name right away. You could sit right next to him at a Sixers game without a clue as to who he is. But your ears will perk up when someone says the words “hot dog” or “eating contest”.
You look over and study him before you put two-and-two together and realize who you’re sitting beside. It’s “that skinny Japanese guy that eats all those hot dogs.” Before you know it, you’re shaking his hand. You’re reaching for your camera-phone. You’re asking a stranger to take your picture. And, above all, you’re really excited.
The good news is that you’re not alone with that reaction.
After taking in Wednesday night’s Sixers-Bulls game (his first NBA game ever), the Bulls’ Joakim Noah, Brian Scalabrine and former Sixer Kyle Korver all came looking to meet Kobayashi and have a picture taken with him. Kobayashi is a guy that even professional athletes want to go out of their way to meet.
What’s the appeal?
“He’s the guy that eats all the hot dogs. You know? And he’s the best there is,” says Noah.
But hot dogs aren’t the only thing the 33-year-old Kobayashi, or Kobi for short, eats. It's quite the opposite. Although chicken wings are one of the few foods he’s never eaten competitively, he’s got his sights, and stomach, set on the $20,000 grand prize at this Friday’s SportsRadio 94 WIP Wing Bowl XX.
But Kobi wants to win more than the money on Friday, he wants to win over Philadelphia, and he has a secret plan for how to do it.
Kobayashi stormed to the forefront of the competitive eating circuit by winning the 2001 Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island, NY. In his very first year competing in the event, he obliterated the contest’s old record, downing 50 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes. He nearly doubled the old record, and he did it in style: He didn’t chew the hot dogs like his competitors; he was somehow able to swallow them nearly whole. And when he started to feel full halfway through the contest, he would contort his stomach like a belly dancer and then miraculously be able to cram in another dozen or so hot dogs. The crowds ate it up.
Kobayashi would hold the Nathan’s title for another five years, and in the process become the face of the quasi-sport known as competitive eating.
Despite competing in eating events all over the world for more than a decade, he’s never competed in Wing Bowl, one of the world’s biggest eating competitions. Last year, WIP invited him to attend Wing Bowl 19 as a guest. While he didn’t compete in the wing-eating main event, he did scarf down a cheesesteak in a world record-breaking 24 seconds as part of an exhibition during a break in the action.
After watching reigning-champion Jonathan “Super” Squibb defeat five-time winner Bill “El Wingador” Simmons by the narrowest of margins; 255 wings to 254, Kobi knew he had to compete in the next Wing Bowl.
“Watching the battle between those two that came down to one wing, I wanted to put myself in there to see how I’d do,” he said through his interpreter.
And just how does he think he’ll do? Kobi was hesitant to say just how many wings he wants to eat.
“That’s not really the point for me,” he said. He is only focused on eating more wings than his competitors, however many that may be.
Easier said than done, says rival eater Bill “El Wingador” Simmons.
“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,” El Wingador told me in a separate interview. Wingador’s personal goal? To eclipse the 300-wing mark for the first time and set a new Wing Bowl record.
When prompted for a response, Kobayashi gave a very diplomatic answer. “I understand that [Wingador] has more experience in this contest. I’m sure his technique and his jaw strength is much better than mine. I know that,” he admitted. So, if Wingador has the technique and the strength, how exactly does Kobayashi plan to win?
While he refuses to discuss the specifics of his training routine even within his own camp, Kobayashi did admit to me that eating a wing is much tougher for him than eating the hot dogs for which he’s famous. Because of that, he’s developed his own method of wing-eating that he thinks will help him win. But even though a chicken wing and a hot dog couldn’t be more different, that doesn’t mean that Kobi’s unique skills don’t apply in this contest.
“I’m very good at swallowing food whole, so I’m going to use the technique I’m good at. I’m very good at saving the energy in my jaw. I envision myself winning by swallowing,” he said.
In other words, Wingador’s game plan boils down to a brute-strength, eat-as-much-as-possible-as-fast-as-possible approach, while Kobayashi plans on using the finesse that’s made him famous the world over.
When asked how he practices, he tells me he eats wings every day to try and perfect the technique he devised for quickly separating the meat from the bone.
Just how many wings does he eat in a day? “I ate 300 this morning,” he said. “The only reason I eat 300 wings at a time is because I need to practice 300 times to find the technique,” he added.
So if he can eat 300 during practice, does that mean he can eat that many during Friday’s competition?
“I hope to eat at least 300,” he said with a smile.
He has some extra motivation to set a new record: Cherry Hill Imports has pledged to donate $10 per wing he eats to Philabundance. If Kobayashi manages to eat 300 wings, he’ll be responsible for earning $3,000 to help fight hunger in Philadelphia, a cause he’s passionate about.
In addition to the challenge of a new food, Wing Bowl appeals to Kobayashi for a reason that sets it apart from other eating competitions: the fans. Kobi is no stranger to crowds; according to police estimates, 50,000 people turned out the last time he competed in Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest in 2007. But the intensity of the Wing Bowl crowd is what truly brought him back to compete this year.
“It’s one of the contests with the most energy, but it’s the only one with that kind of energy,” he said with a smile. “I thought the greatest thing about it was that the audience was the kind of audience that really gets the eaters in the mood to fight,” he claimed.
The elaborate entourages that accompany each contestant to the stage are among the most memorable things about the spectacle that is Wing Bowl. Kobayashi is drawn to the concept of the entourage, which he says is totally unique to the Wing Bowl.
“That’s the great thing about this contest. All athletes, all boxers, when they go into the ring, the entrance is so important. I’ve always thought that the packaging, the entertainment part of sports is really important for how you feel going into an event,” he said with a huge grin.
Some entourages are elaborate affairs, like last year’s “Back to the Future” themed entourage that featured a two-door hatchback made to look like Doc Brown’s Delorean (complete with the trademark “gull-wing” doors). Some are as simple as a sign carried by some scantily clad “Wingettes”.
When asked about what exactly they were doing for their entourage, Kobayashi and his translator suddenly whispered quietly to each other before calling over Kobi’s promoter; it turns out, the theme of his entourage is a closely guarded secret.
“We don’t want to say what it is, because it’s going to be a surprise. It’s going to be huge though,” said Don Povia, Kobi’s promoter. “It’s going to be really big and really fancy. It’s going to be very Philadelphia,” he teased.
It’s impossible to spend any amount of time around Kobayashi and his translator, Maggie James, without being charmed by his friendly and fun-loving personality.
“He’s like a big kid!” Maggie exclaimed after Kobi suddenly darted off mid-conversation on the floor of the Wells Fargo Center after the Sixers game. He coaxed Maggie into taking a picture of him next to a life-sized photo of Charles Barley mid-dunk, and when she counted to three (ichi, ni, san!) he leapt into the air, mimicking Sir Charles’ pose. It was so funny and spontaneous and made it totally obvious that this is a guy that is enjoying the ride he’s on.
But when the time comes to compete, Kobi says that he’s a totally different person. So different, in fact, that he finds it hard to believe it’s actually him up there. “I think of myself as another me every single time I compete. I think ‘This time, it’s the hero version of me,’” he confesses. “There are two of me. There’s regular me, and me during a competition I channel that other person that’s never there on a regular day.”
Kobi says he feels so little connection between the two personas that he’s occasionally uncomfortable when people praise him for his achievements.
“I feel like a cheater sometimes,” he says of his interactions with fans. “I think of that other me as a being that’s not really part of me. That guy always comes out and gives me something during competitions. I’m lucky. I feel like I’m stealing from that dude,” he says.
It seems like a very complicated situation but one that clearly works for the man. One thing is for certain though; if that “other” Kobayashi shows up on Friday you’d be hard pressed to bet against him.
Kobayashi is acutely aware that Philadelphia is a notoriously tough town to please when it comes to sports. He’s spent so much time in the city and had such a good time here that he’s dedicated to winning everybody over. He doesn’t want to be the villain. He doesn’t want to be the bad guy. He talks about the “Rocky” movies. He doesn’t want to be booed and thought of as an outsider, like Ivan Drago. He wants to be like Rocky. He wants to be the hero.
“I hope I don’t sound like I’m bragging. I don’t mean to brag. I hear that Philadelphia sports fans don’t like people that brag,” he said nervously at one point.
I tell him that he’s mostly right, but that it’s not really that simple. I tell him that sometimes it’s okay to brag, like Jimmy Rollins before the 2007 season. I tell him that this city likes genuine, honest people. So if he feels like bragging, I advised him that he probably should.
I also tell him that this city, above all, likes winners. It likes “the best”. That finally seems to satisfy him and puts his mind at ease. Winning is something he knows he can do and he genuinely believes he’s “the best”. I tell him that with that attitude, I think he’ll fit right in.