The biggest and most important competitive eating event in the world takes place today in New York City.
The Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest is an annual American hot dog eating competition. It is held each Independence Day at Nathan’s Famous Corporation’s original and best-known restaurant — on the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues in the Coney Island neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Legend has it that on this date in 1916, four immigrants held a hot dog eating contest at the Nathan’s Famous stand on Coney Island to settle an argument about who was the most patriotic. The event was won by an Irishman, Jim Mullen, who finished off 13 franks in buns in 12 minutes. Thus began the link between hot dogs and patriotism. Today, the combination of Nathan’s Famous, red hots and the Fourth of July is pure Americana.
To be frank, Nathan’s is the Super Bowl of competitive eating contests. The Fourth of July event attracts over 40,000 fans and has been covered by ESPN since 2003, attracting nearly two million viewers. The Worldwide Leader in Sports relishes the chance to continue its partnership with Nathan’s. An Independence Day programming staple, ESPN has secured an agreement to broadcast the dog-eat-dog battle through 2024.
Ten minutes to glory earns Nathan’s winners $10,000. The Men’s champion claims the famed Mustard Belt while the Women’s winner garners the coveted pink Pepto Bismol Belt.
The hot dog was invented by Charles Feltman, who slipped a sausage into a roll in 1867 and named the creation frankfurter after his birthplace in Frankfurt, Germany. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the weenie, Nathan’s Famous hosted a contest at its pigs-in-a-blanket palace June 30, 1967. The event was won by Walter Paul, a 400-pound truck driver who ate 127 red hots in one hour. For his efforts, Paul, 32, earned a trophy proclaiming him the world’s champion hot dog eater.
The first king of Coney Island was Takeru Kobayashi, who ate a then-record 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes as a Nathan’s rookie in 2001. The 23-year-old native of Nagano, Japan, doubled the previous mark of 25. The record was so unexpected that when Kobayashi got to the later numbers, the organizers ran out of signs indicating how many dogs Kobayashi had eaten and had to resort to handwritten signs. The 5’8”, 130-pound Kobayashi won a record six Nathan’s contests between 2001 and 2006. Dubbed The Tsunami, Mr. Kobayashi holds numerous competitive eating records, including marks for meatballs, Twinkies, tacos, hamburgers, pizza and ice cream.
Earning a spot on the hot dog stage takes dedication, grit and quite an appetite. The event, which has been sanctioned by Major League Eating [MLE] since 1997, consists only of entrants under contract with MLE [Kobayshi stopped competing at Nathan’s after 2009 due to a contract dispute with MLE]. The field of about 20 typically includes the defending champion, winners of numerous qualifiers held throughout that season, and two wild card entrants. Nathan’s also includes special invitees. In 2003, former NFL defensive lineman William “The Refrigerator” Perry was invited as a celebrity contestant. Though he had won a qualifier by eating a dozen weenies, The Fridge couldn’t cut the mustard on the big stage, finishing only four franks and stopping after just five minutes.
Joey Chestnut devoured a record 74 hot dogs in 2018, consuming over 12,000 calories in ten minutes. That’s the equivalent of four Thanksgiving dinners – and about 16 pounds of processed meats.
The competitors stand on a raised platform behind a long table with drinks and Nathan’s famous hot dogs [which have cooled slightly since grilling to prevent mouth burns] in buns. Most have water on hand. The contestant that consumes [and keeps down] the most hot dogs and buns [HDB] in ten minutes is declared the winner. The length of the contest has varied over the years. The 1967 event lasted an hour, while others have run anywhere from 3 ½ to 12 minutes. Since 2008, the Nathan’s contest has employed a ten-minute time limit.
A designated scorekeeper is paired with each contestant, flipping a number board counting each hot dog consumed. Partially eaten hot dogs count, as do franks still in the mouth at the end of regulation as long as they are subsequently swallowed. Yellow penalty cards can be issued for messy eating, and red penalty cards can be issued for reversal of fortune [vomiting], which results in disqualification. In the event of a tie, contestants go to a five-weenie eat-off. Further ties result in a sudden-death eat-off involving downing one more dog in the fastest time.
Sonya Thomas won the inaugural Women’s contest in 2011 by eating 40 HDB. Thomas had difficulty eating a hot dog in less than a minute when she was first introduced to the competition in 2003. After practicing, the Black Widow was able to knock off 19 dogs in 12 minutes. The South Korean-born Thomas holds over 25 competitive eating records, including wolfing down 45 weenies at Nathan’s in 2012. The Black Widow once ate 92 hard-boiled eggs in eight minutes, 250 tater tots in five minutes and 58 burgers in eight minutes. The 51-year-old Virginian, who stands 5’5” and weighs 100 pounds, eats one meal a day, then spends two hours walking on an inclined treadmill. She once consumed one-and-a-half gallons of chili in six minutes, over eight pounds of baked beans in less than three minutes, and ten pounds of lobster in 12 minutes.
In 2014, Miki Sudo dethroned Thomas, who had won every Women’s event since its inception in 2011. Sudo quickly became Major League Eating’s top-ranked female competitor and has reeled of five straight Nathan’s contests to lay claim to the cherished pink Pepto Bismol Belt.
The greatest eater in the history of the world’s most famous competitive eating event is Joey Chestnut. A 35-year-old construction engineering major from San Jose State University, “Jaws” is the all-time chow down champ. After dethroning The Tsunami to claim his first title in 2007, Chestnut has been a dominant force at Nathan’s for more than a decade. His only loss over the past dozen years came at the hands [and mouth] of Matt Stonie in 2015. Owner of more than 40 competitive eating world records, the 205-pound Chestnut has gone on a Nathan’s frankfurter frenzy. After chomping 66 wieners in 2007 to obliterate Kobayashi’s record of 53.75 set one year earlier, Jaws has shattered his own mark four times. In 2016, he became the first person ever to put away 70 franks at Coney. The following year, Chestnut ate 72. In 2018, the Californian devoured a record 74 franks in ten minutes to claim his 11th Nathan’s title.
Nathan’s Famous competitors employ a variety of approaches to competitive eating. Kobayashi pioneered the Solomon Method. First used in 2001, it consists of breaking each dog in half, eating both halves at once, and then eating the bun. Other methods include the Carlene Pop, where the competitor jumps up and down while eating in an attempt to force the food down the stomach. Similarly, the Buns and Roses approach involves swaying from side to side. Dunking is the most popular method used today. Because buns absorb water, contestants dunk the buns in water and squeeze them down their throats to make them easier to swallow.
Easily the most well-known competitive eating contest in the world, the Nathan’s event has been featured in 11 documentaries and television programs, including Red, White and Yellow , Gut Busters  and Hungry .
A raucous event held just steps from the beach, the 2019 Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest takes place today in Coney Island. The Women’s division gets underway at 10:50 a.m. ET and the Men’s competition airs at noon ET. Watch on ESPN2 or online stream at WatchESPN.