Chewing through competition

Jonathan Pitts

He seemed a normal lad growing up in central New Jersey – quiet, studious, a bit of an appetite perhaps, but no predilection for superhuman feats.

Then he saw the TV show that changed his life.

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” says Brian “Eatin'” Keaton.

He was watching the hot-dog-eating competition at Nathan’s Famous Coney Island on the Fourth of July seven years ago. That was when Takeru Kobayashi, a slender Japanese native, shot to fame by gorging himself on 50 hot dogs to win the contest. He went on to win the title five more years before finishing second last year to another world-record eater, Joey Chestnut of California.

“I was so impressed,” Keaton says. “I was inspired.”

A junior at the University of Maryland, College Park, Keaton can’t quite say what it was – the cheers of the crowd, Kobayashi’s unyielding gluttony or the fact that the 110-pounder was so small compared to the size of his achievement. But the Middletown, N.J., native knew the sport of competitive eating was to his own taste.

Now, after three years of his own on the feed-bag trail, Keaton, 21, finds himself on the brink of eating eminence. He’ll fly to San Diego this weekend to take on the likes of Christian “Muscox” McCarthy and Casey “Powerhouse” Poehlmann, competitors from Kentucky and Pennsylvania, and other gurus of the groaning board in a no-holds-barred pig-out for the first-ever title of Collegiate Nationals Eating Champion.

Keaton is seeded fourth for the contest, a joint production of the CBS College Sports Network and the Association of Independent Competitive Eaters, which will be televised coast to coast in May. “I might be a long shot,” Keaton says, “but I do have a shot.”

As he trains for the biggest eat-off of his life, Keaton is part of an international wave of interest in competitive eating that began around the time the 5-foot-8-inch Kobayashi first stepped up to that Coney Island picnic table in 2001, loosened his belt and astonished the public by doubling the record for the 84-year-old contest, then a mere 25 hot dogs. Last year, when Chestnut smashed the mark with a gut-busting 66 dogs, more than 30,000 people witnessed the triumph in person, and ESPN broadcast it live to 1.5 million households.

“Pro eating … started as a joke and morphed into something serious, simply because the eaters started insisting that it be taken seriously,” says Jason Fagone, author of Horsemen of the Esophagus, a book on the phenomenon, which has given rise to multiple competitive leagues. “They … started arguing for the sport-ness of the thing. And it does share a lot of the attributes of sports – it’s intense physical work, it’s possible to train and get better, it’s benchmarked, it’s competitive, there’s a circuit, there are contests that mean more than others.”

The Collegiate Nationals Eating Championship will be the first to select an American collegiate eating king. The top four seeds, including Keaton, will automatically make Saturday’s finals, to be held at the Wave House at Mission Beach in San Diego. An open chow-down Friday will determine four other competitors for the finals.

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