The greatest hot dog eater of all time? It's gonna be me, Kobayashi says

This Fourth of July, for the first time in 23 years, neither of the world’s greatest competitive eaters, Takeru Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut, will feature in Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest.

In 2010, Major League Eating banned Kobayashi from the event over a contractual dispute. They wanted him to be exclusive to MLE, which sanctioned the Nathan’s event, held annually at Coney Island. Last month, the same happened to his longtime rival, Chestnut, whom MLE banned from Nathan’s after he signed an endorsement deal with Impossible Foods, which makes vegan hot dogs.

Instead, the two men will face off in a live Netflix special on Labor Day to determine once and for all who is the greatest eater in the world. Their rivalry dates back to 2007, when Chestnut unseated Kobayashi, who had won Nathan’s six years in a row and set multiple world records. Chestnut then went on to win 15 of the next 16 competitions and holds the current world record — 76 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes. Kobayashi, now 46, wants it back.

ESPN spoke with Kobayashi through his interpreter, Noriko Okubo, for the July 3 episode of the ESPN Daily podcast. In his first interview since the Sept. 2 contest was announced, he discusses his rivalry with Chestnut, what happened with Major League Eating and why he never retired from competitive eating.

ESPN: You grew up in a country where hot dogs are uncommon. What was it like the first time you tasted a hot dog?

Kobayashi: The first time I ever competed at Nathan’s, I ate [a hot dog] two days before the actual competition, so it must have been July 2nd. I landed in New York, and it was the first thing that I ate, so I remember it clearly. The taste was very strong, and it was salty.

ESPN: What else do you remember from that first year?

Kobayashi: I was surprised by the intense smell of the beef hot dogs. Once you’re in the competition, you don’t focus on the taste. You’re only motivated by eating quickly. But before the competition, when the smell irks you, it can affect your overall performance, so I was a little worried. The biggest difference was the audience between Japan and America. American audiences cheer a lot for you. It’s very rowdy. Japanese audiences tend to be more focused and concentrated and sit quietly, watching you.

ESPN: We’ve all seen the news that you’ll be taking on your former rival, Joey Chestnut, for the first time since 2009. What has it been like for you since the news of this Labor Day faceoff came about?

Kobayashi: A lot of response through social media has come my way. Friends, people around the neighborhood just walking down the street are really thinking about this like, ‘I really hope you do well.’ We’re looking forward to the competition, and it really, truly feels like a lot of the fans are on this new journey and challenge with me.

ESPN: When you came to the U.S., you were young and changed the game. You looked at being a competitive eater as being an athlete, at competitive eating as a sport. Your technique was different. How do you describe it?

Kobayashi: For me, it’s more about the rhythm of eating and trying to focus on doing as little as possible that is extra. Very efficient eating.

ESPN: What did you think of Joey’s technique the first time you competed against him?

Kobayashi: His style is more power-oriented. Very powerful, I would say.

ESPN: You won for six years. What are your fondest memories from that time?

Kobayashi: The biggest memory is obviously that first year when I won and the second memory is in 2004, one of my rivals, someone I’d been competing against consistently in Japan, also participated in Nathan’s with me. And I beat him.

ESPN: We can’t talk about your influence on the sport without talking about the Solomon method you developed. What is the Solomon method?

Kobayashi: While others were focused on eating a lot, I was more intent on focusing on that one hot dog and how I can eat that one hot dog in the quickest way possible. Because once you focus on that, all you have to do is repeat that and you end up eating the most hot dogs. It was like conducting research in a lab. I tried all sorts of things. That’s when I found out that breaking the hot dog in half, separating the bun from the dog and dipping it in water was, for me, the quickest method.

ESPN: What was it about your personality and the way that you saw the sport that allowed you to exceed what anyone had done before, to really prove possible things your competitors believed were impossible in the sport before you?

Kobayashi: First and foremost, I think I was really just suited for this sport. I was more of an individual player, not so much into team sports. It’s really the mindset, the spirit. Approaching competitive eating as a sport is probably the most important thing for me. I also enjoy extreme sports. I like things that have an element of danger, an element of challenge.

ESPN: You told us you first noticed Joey when he placed third in a competition in 2004, but he made it into a rivalry with you when he won in 2007. What do you remember from that 2007 contest at Nathan’s?

Kobayashi: There was disappointment on my side from losing. But at the same time, it had been a very lonely place for me for many years, in terms of trying to promote competitive eating on my own. And I think by having a rival now, there was a sense of relief, that it wasn’t just up to me to keep improving my score.

ESPN: You had been the hero in the sport for so many years. And once he emerged, you seemed to take on the role of the villain. What was your sense of your role in the rivalry once Joey emerged on the scene?

Kobayashi: The fact that I became a villain came as a huge shock. I did my best. I worked hard to elevate competitive eating as well as the Nathan’s competition. And for this to happen was kind of like a slap in the face. Looking at how they depicted me in the promotion of the competition truly hurt me. I still am not able to forgive the competition organizers for doing this. It’s an incredibly bad memory for me.

ESPN: How did they portray you?

Kobayashi: A lot of the promotion was about talking about how Kobayashi came to the U.S. to destroy the Independence Day that was celebrated in the United States. And he was here to shame Americans. And I think there were people who believed this to be true. That was the kind of energy that was coming out and some fans, because of that sheer hatred for me, chose to cheer on an American competitor instead of me.

ESPN: In 2010, my understanding is that Major League Eating wanted you to sign an exclusive contract to compete only at their events. You declined, and because of that, they barred you from the contest that year. What happened on the day of that 2010 competition?

Kobayashi: We were still negotiating until the 11th hour. But all of a sudden, Nathan’s published a press release that said Kobayashi will not compete. My lawyer and I were completely taken aback. I had just moved to the U.S. intent on making a career there. I had nothing to do now, so I had to at least leave a message to the world. That day, I decided to go to Coney Island about an hour and a half before the competition. My friends had created a t-shirt that said, “Free Kobayashi.” I was hoping in the back of my mind that one of the journalists would see what it said on my t-shirt.

The Major League Eating press release focused on the fact that I was scared from competing against Chestnut and that I had decided to run away. That’s not the message I wanted for people to believe. I really wanted people to know that it was more about my rights to be involved in other competitions. I snuck into the audience of the competition and my then-girlfriend, who’s now my wife, her brother decided to carry me on his shoulders so that people could see that I was there in the audience, and the press got hold of it. As you know, it’s live on ESPN. An image of me was depicted on the big screen, and the audience started to chant, “Let him eat!” I got really excited because of the chanting, and I decided to run over to the stage. And because the security, the police, were quite familiar with me, they created room for me to go up to the stage. But once I was there, I think the organizers told the police that I needed to be caught. And that’s what the police had to do. The same police that created space for me to go up to the stage.

ESPN: What was your intent when you climbed on the stage? What did you want people to see?

Kobayashi: It was about me trying to tell the people that I’m ready. I’m prepared to eat, to challenge and to win against Joey.

ESPN: And now, nearly 15 years later, you are about to compete again. But in May, Netflix released a show, “Hacking Your Health,” in which you seem to say you planned to retire from competitive eating. What went into that decision?

Kobayashi: In terms of the timing of the broadcast, it was not what I intended. That show was filmed three years ago during the pandemic. At that point when I was being interviewed, I hadn’t competed in two years. So, both mentally and physically, I was not at that place where I had the mind of an athlete. Through the show and discovering the facts about what was happening to my brain, I did feel that, yeah, maybe I would think about retiring because of the situation that we were all in. And whoever translated my words into English, well, what I did say in Japanese was maybe I will end up retiring eventually.

ESPN: Even though that Netflix special was filmed three years ago, at the time, you had serious concerns about how competitive eating had affected your body and brain. What concerns do you still have today?

Kobayashi: In truth, that’s something I don’t want to be thinking about. Because if you start thinking that your sport is dangerous or it’s not good for your body, you can’t push yourself. But what must be said is that for the general public, this sport is not safe. It’s obviously not good for your body. Even my colleagues who have competed with me over the years, there are already three people who have died in their 50s or under the age of 50.

ESPN: After having not competed in five years, we get this long-awaited rematch between you and Joey Chestnut, 15 years in the making. How did this come about and what made you want to do this?

Kobayashi: I just want to decide who is the fastest eater, who is the stronger one. That needs to be decided once and for all.

ESPN: How has training been going and what is most different about training for competitive eating at 46 compared to when you were the teenaged Tsunami?

Kobayashi: I’m not young anymore, so the recovery is slower for me in training. But when you start thinking about all the negatives, all the disadvantages, I really cannot focus on that. We have to defy pure logic. If I say I’m going to win, I’m going to win, and that’s that.

ESPN: What is your prediction for the Labor Day contest?

Kobayashi: I want everyone to look forward to this. It will be live globally, and the world’s greatest will be determined. And it shall be me.

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