For years, Joey Chestnut has dominated the sport of competitive eating the same way Einstein dominated physics. But as the say in Street Fighter, here comes a new challenger—Matt Stonie, a soft-spoken 21-year-old Californian who has already beaten Joey...
Joey Chestnut and Matt Stonie battle it out for the World Gyro Eating Championship in Houston, Texas, on May 19. Joey won by eating 22 1/4 gyros in ten minutes, while Matt finished second, with 20. Photo via Niko Niko's
A couple weeks ago, Matt Stonie, one of the best competitive eaters in the world, delivered a Twitter jab at the best competitive eater in the world—the Saturn-Devouring-His-Children of foodies, the seven-time winner of the Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest, Joey Chestnut. Matt was mocking Joey for for not joining him on National Chicken Wing Day to do some friendly, nonsanctioned competitive noshing. Athletes belonging to more popular, more mainstream sports are normally too media conscious and sensitive to the brands that sponsor them, but competitive eaters are still free to be themselves in public. In Matt “Megatoad” Stonie’s case, that means he can good-naturedly banter at his rival and remind eating fans (there are eating fans out there) that there’s other competitors.
Joey did not respond to the tweet—he had just taken his second Hooters World Wing Eating Championship by inhaling a gargantuan pile of 179 hot sauce- and margarine-slathered bird limbs in ten minutes, and if he’d still been hungry, he’d probably be looking to tuck into pretty much any other form of nutrition. Or it could have had something to do with his famously publicity-adverse nature. For a guy who dominates competitions that most people regard as sideshows, Joey doesn’t seem to seek out publicity and rarely brags. Some in the sport say he's difficult when it comes to the press (maybe that's why he didn't want to speak with me for this article). The 29-year-old’s quiet dedication to his craft—the taxing training schedule, the rigors of contest after contest—is almost monklike. Even when he won his seventh straight hot-dog title, he seemed subdued, like one for whom the act of competition is more important the victory itself.
Contrast that with Matt, a 21-year-old kid from California with a baby face and an air of impish calm common to surfers who live pretty much entirely on sun-soaked beaches. He came to competitive eating casually, in the way of a young man discovering an unlooked-for superpower. “There was a local place that had a five-pound burrito and I thought it would be cool to be the first person in town to finish the burrito,” he said. “That was just for fun. Then a few years ago I was up in the Boston area and there was a lobster roll eating contest just like five minutes away from my house with a thousand-dollar prize. I won, and beat a bunch of pro guys and I was like, ‘I can do this.’”
The International Federation of Competitive Eating, the organizing body of the sport, currently ranks Matt number four in the world, but he’s slowly but surely climbing the ladder, spurred on by a series of shocking and unexpected victories over Joey. Matt doesn’t share the champ’s reticence—“I smoked him,” he said of Chestnut after he won the deep-fried asparagus title in Stockton, California, in April by wolfing down 9.5 pounds of fat-saturated vegetables in ten minutes.
This was more than just another notch in Matt’s masticatory belt—the loss was a deeply felt, personal setback for Joey, who only ate eight pounds of fried greens. Joey started his career on the “asparagus circuit,” and won his first eating title there in 2005. Richard Shea, President of Major League Eating, compared Stonie’s triumph to Roger Federer trumping Rafael Nadal on a clay court. “Joey doesn’t take that lightly,” he said.
Mat represents the first legitimate challenge to Joey’s all-food-groups-encompassing supremacy since the six-time Nathan’s champion Takeru Kobayashi angrily split with Major League Eating in 2010 over contract differences regarding endorsement revenue. At its apex, Chestnut versus Kobayashi transcended the boundaries of athletic competition and became an international rivalry—when Joey took back the belt from his Japanese rival on July 4, 2007, he spoke about bringing the title “home.”
There’s no nationalism in the Stonie/Chestnut face off, and it hasn’t exactly captured the public’s imagination the same way Kobayashi/Chestnut did. But if you care about competitive eating—if you are impressed instead of grossed out by grown men eating, say 47 dozen oysters in eight minutes—the emergence of a legitimate rival for Chestnut is as exciting as Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich jostling for position in the Tour de France, or Bird and Magic facing off on the hardwood, or David and Goliath meeting on the battlefield.
At the Nathan’s contest on July 4, Matt raced out to an early lead, but his youth and inexperience betrayed him. He succumbed to that day’s brutal humidity (the hotter it is, the more hot dog buns tend to swell in eaters’ bellies), wilting as Joey finished strong—the champ devoured 69 franks, setting a world record, and Matt was a distant second at 51.
The two great gladiators of gluttony butted heads again on July 11, in Corinth, Mississippi, at the second annual World Slugburger Eating Championship, a part of the 26th Annual Slugburger Festival. (A Slugburger is a combo beef/soybean meal patty that was invented during the Depression—the “slug” in the name is derived from archaic slang for a nickel.)
The Corinth clash is a relatively minor event, so Joey’s presence there was a bit odd. As Richard Shea remarked, “After [Chestnut] lost to Stonie, he started popping up at contests. I think he felt like, ‘Oh boy. I’m being challenged.’” The Slugburger was the first world record that Matt set, and it appears that the champ hoped to avenge the searing pain over the loss of his prized asparagus crown by dealing an equally wounding rebuke to his ephebic adversary in entrées.
Once again, though, it was Matt who proved the hungrier man, edging out Joey 31-30 in the ten-minute contest that might as well have been a two-man match. “One burger—that’s all it takes,” Matt said afterward, clearly feeling inflated by his victory.
Unlike Joey, who is already talking about quitting the sport, Matt is clearly looking forward to someday unseating his competitor at the top of the eating food chain. “Most of the contests, I’m right up there with Joey,” he said. “It’s great that people are looking at me as the future of the sport. But I’m only going to be the future if I keep pushing.”
They’ll battle again on August 18 at the Day-Lee Foods World Gyoza Eating Championship. Joey holds the world record at 266 in ten minutes, but Matt is hoping to snatch that title from the elder statesman’s jaws. If he does, you can be sure he’ll be tweeting about it.
More food-related oddities: