How much food do you think you can put away in a single sitting? I mean, how much really?
Plenty of us like to salivate over insanely stacked burgers or plates of ribs, but how about biting down into a hot dog in front of thousands of cheering fans, as your food-stuffed face is beamed into millions of homes around the world whilst a team of judges set a timer and monitor your every mouthful?
That’s a lot to swallow.
Major League Eating thrives on exactly that. The world body oversees all professional eating contests and has developed it from a county fair attraction into a seriously competitive circuit of 50 Major League Eaters, big prize money and even sponsorship deals.
It’s still a bizarre world though, similar in some ways to professional wrestling (think big gold belts, trash talk and competitors with nicknames like ‘The Black Widow’, ‘Badlands’ and ‘Megabyte’) but with an obsession with statistics that’s more akin to athletics (on June 10, 2011 Patrick Bertoletti devoured 5.25lbs of Baby Back Ribs in eight minutes).
We spoke to four MLE ranked competitors; Matthew ‘Megatoad’ Stonie (enfant terrible and current no. 1 ranked competitor), Tim ‘Eater X’ Janus (committed face painter, Nigiri Sushi record holder and current no.4), Miki Sudo (highest ranked woman competitor and no.3 overall) and Michelle ‘Cardboard Shell’ Lesco (no.8 overall and Ribmania champion at Ribfest 2015) about how they got started, what drives them on and what makes Nathan’s Hot Dog Contest the ‘granddaddy of them all’.
How did you end up being a competitive eater?
Matthew ‘The Megatoad’ Stonie: “A fluke really. A few years back I decided to sign myself up for a local Lobster Roll Eating Contest awarding $1,000 in cash to the winners. Went in not expecting to win, came out on top. At the time I was in College working a $7/hr summer job – so winning $1,000 in 10 minutes for eating free Lobster Rolls was pretty cool.”
Tim ‘Eater X’ Janus: “Eleven years ago, I was a day trader, but I wasn’t a very good one. I was broke, and I needed a vacation, but I couldn’t afford one. I heard about a contest near my apartment, and I thought, ‘Okay. This one day will be my vacation’. So I took the day off work, and I had a lot of fun, and I did okay, and I saw ways in which I could improve if I gave myself another chance. So I went to another contest and then another, constantly learning about myself and improving little by little. That one day really snowballed.”
What’s been your biggest career high point to date?
Stonie: “This year, 2015, has been a really good year for me. Nine MLE contests so far and six new world records. I’m undefeated, and moved up in the ranks to claim the #1 spot. The highlight though has to be a couple of months ago when I won the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, upsetting and ending Joey Chestnut’s eight-year dominance of the event. It’s our sport’s biggest stage, it’s the hardest contest of the year to win, so it was pretty big.”
Michelle ‘Cardboard Shell’ Lesco: “The definite highlight was the opportunity to come out to Northern Ireland to compete in the Hillsborough International Oyster Eating Contest. To have the chance to compete internationally (in such a lovely country, I might add) was truly amazing. Unfortunately, King Colin retained his crown for another year, but he’s a top-notch man who is truly good at what he does!”
Miki Sudo: “I’m most proud of the friendships I’ve made on the circuit. I could reference competition stats (first ever ranked in the top 10 at first ranking, top female, #4 in the world), but who cares? You can research that stuff online. What you can’t Google are the greatest friendships in the world that I have thanks to competitive eating.”
Do competitive eaters hit ‘the wall’ – like marathon runners?
Janus: “Of course. But it’s a different kind of wall. Ours isn’t a wall of fatigue and muscle cramps. It’s a wall of fullness and disgust. But we have to keep going, just like runners do, even when we wish we could stop. The resolve that we possess is how we’re similar to distance runners. Also we both wear sneakers to work.”
Sudo: “You hit the wall, and then you grab a hammer and break it down.”
What is your toughest event and why?
Janus: “Nathan’s is the toughest contest. It takes the most discipline. It’s the focus of months of thought. Speed is critical, but so is capacity. Everybody struggles with hot dogs when they first start competing. Some people never figure it out. I’ve figured it out, and I love it, but it still requires a great effort.”
Lesco: “Many are difficult in different ways. Some contests make you quite full, and others are all about speed, technique, and hand dexterity. I guess I’m going to choose the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, since it has been the most difficult to reach levels of self-improvement, despite true efforts.”
Sudo: “I’m built for this. There are no tough events – with that said, the hardest event to date was ‘Chili in DC’ – I ate close to two gallons in four and half minutes, and I had to stop (it was a six-minute contest). I was so full, I couldn’t keep going.”
What advice would you give to someone looking to go pro?
Janus: “Sign up for a contest. Choose your event carefully. Be safe. And make it whatever you want it to be. If it’s just for fun, have fun. If you really want to push yourself, push yourself. And try to make some memories. Look around. Talk to people. Slow things down. If it’s a blur now, it’ll be even blurrier later.”
Lesco: “Maybe start out with a local challenge – and find a friend with medical training who can help if anything goes wrong! If you have a specific goal, you will be able to determine if you have what it takes to push through the pain and continue, as you must do in most sports.”
How do you psych yourself up for a big competition?
Stonie: “I think about why I want to win, who I want to win it for, and who I don’t want to let down. A lot of times I try to imagine all my friends, family, and fans cheering for me and that it’s my job to not let them down.”
Janus: “I’ve tried all kinds of approaches, but I’m not really the kind of guy who feeds off of adrenaline. I feed off of thought and focus, so I like to go off on my own and spend the time before the contest reminding myself why I’m there and what I want to do.”
What’s the biggest challenge of being a professional eater?
Stonie: “I’d say staying in shape is a pretty difficult task. I mean, the training that goes into it and the competitions are definitely harder and more intense, but that just comes with the package.”
Lesco: “Finding time to truly be prepared despite a having a ‘day job’. Often, I’d like to have more time to prepare and train, but can’t do so because of long work hours. I hate going into competitions under-prepared.”
How does it feel to get one of the ‘big gold belts’?
Janus: “Every trophy collection is better when a belt is a part of it, but overall I prefer a nice, shiny cup with a solid base. You get a cup, you put things in it. I keep packs of gum in one of mine. A few big cups can look good around the house. Too many, though, and you look like you’re full of yourself.”
Sudo: “Awesome. Winning is cool, but winning with bling is cooler!”
What’s the marquee event of the MLE calendar and what makes it so good?
Stonie: “Nathans Hot Dog Contest is, hands down, the biggest event of the year. A huge live and televised audience, the biggest line-up of competitors, the longest standing history and prestige, it’s huge. Digressing, there are many other large events on the circuit as well, such as the Hooters World Wing Eating Championship, Day-Lee Foods Gyoza Eating Championship, Smoke’s Poutine Poutine Eating Championship, the World Twinkie Eating Championship, just to name a few, but Nathan’s remains bar none for now.”
Janus: Without a doubt it’s Nathan’s, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either lying or stinks at eating hot dogs”
Lesco: “The Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest is the most renowned event in the Major League Eating Calendar Year. We eat before a crowd of about 35,000 people, all crammed into the corner of Surf and Stillwell at Coney Island on the 4th of July. And it is shown to millions of viewers via ESPN telecast (including presidents). Nathan’s is a gathering of the top competitors – about 12 men and 12 women, who have all been preparing for the contest for months. For competitors, it’s a day that will end in heartbreak or glory. You just can’t beat Coney Island on the 4th of July. It has become a true American tradition for Independence Day”
Is it really possible to make a living from competitive eating?
Stonie: “Competitive Eating is no football or basketball. No million dollar checks, no Nike deals yet, and we still fly coach, but what we do is sports entertainment and when people come out to watch our events they have an amazing time.
“I’d say in any given year, the Top Competitors can pull in over six figures through prize purses and whatnot. So yes, if you’re competing regularly, making appearances, and working hard to win the higher prize payouts you can do well for yourself. I’m doing it right now, a few have before me, so it’s very possible.”
Lesco: “It absolutely is. For champions like Joey Chestnut and Matt Stonie, it amounts to a six-figure income after prize money, appearance incentives, and sponsorships. The top eaters essentially become brand ambassadors – the faces of the foods they eat. With that level of advertisement comes some compensation. For me, it’s not as lucrative, but it serves as a supplementary income that adds to my meagre teacher wages and allows me to see the world”
More information on all Major League Eating events can be found at www.majorleagueeating.com