Fear and Digesting in Las Vegas

I just canceled my flight to Las Vegas, which is bittersweet. Perhaps more sweet than bitter as the song goes, as I canceled because I have already qualified to compete at Nathan's Famous on July 4th in Coney Island. Major League Eaters get three shots at qualifying, and while I fell short in Plant City, Fla. in March, I did win the Atlanta Qualifier on April 12. Had I not, I'd be flying to Vegas this Friday. So canceling my flight was a tad bitter because, if the July 4th Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Contest is the patriotic destination, the Las Vegas qualifier at the New York-New York Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas (this year on April 25th) is the American Dream journey. After all, what could be more patriotic than celebrating the birth of our great nation on its founding day at high noon by overeating frankfurters, but to become a competitor there, one must win one of the dozen U.S. qualifiers around the nation. Perhaps no other location is as hotly contested, as an important harbinger of future champions than the Las Vegas qualifier. It makes sense that to make it to the Boardwalk of Coney Island, one starts at the mini-boardwalk of the mini-Brooklyn Bridge in Vegas. A journey of a thousand chomps starts with a single bite and usually the Nathan's Famous circuit kicks off in the hot Las Vegas sun. The sun beats the dogs until they glisten, uneven seams pushing to break free. The buns toast until they are dipped in hot water, following the weenies into the maw of Major League Eaters, creating a whooshing swallowing system not dissimilar from the barrel roll and 144 foot drop rollercoaster that circles the casino. When the going get tough, the tough turn pro-eating.

The NY NY Hotel and Casino is one of the only places you can casually snack on a Nathan's hot dog and then stroll to the sports book to bet on how many a competitor will eat at the July 4th finals. Most of the bets are under/overs (always bet the over) and some are one-on-one matchups (The easy money is betting for the guy facing this author as I often eat in the low 20s). Joey Chestnut is the eight-time champion with his best at 69 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes. My qualifying total this year was 21 in the same time, so to become a champion against Joey, I would have to eat three times as fast, three times the food, and then add an extra plate of five at the buzzer simply to tie "Jaws" Chestnut. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, but heavier still is the belly that bears the belt.

For most of Major League Eating's years, 50 hot dogs was the 4-minute mile so Joey, within one of 70 would be running/eating the equivalent of a two minute mile. He is that fast. He is that good. In previous years, he has made over $200,000 opening his mouth every weekend in different cities for Native Grill and Wings chicken wings, Denver Outlaw World's burritos, and St Elmo's Steakhouse shrimp cocktail. By comparison the 2nd ranked eater makes about thirty grand a year, usually attending more contests. The top dog is the only dog whose makes the bread. How did this happen? It happened in the city of glitz created out of the desert, the city of greed and gamble. It happened in 2006 when Joey ate 50 hot dogs and became a challenger to reigning dominant champ Takeru Kobayashi. In a PR highjacking Joey remained media silent for three days until Nathan's Famous ponied up prize money for the top five finishers at the finals. If only Joey had held out for an extra day, maybe we could have gotten prize money for the whole field as it is MLE's signature event, a media juggernaut, and an ESPN ratings winner, but Nathan's does pay flight, accommodations, and a per diem so I'll should probably stop bellyaching. The eaters do host their own unofficial official after party (post contest at Ruby's on the boardwalk, and that night in NYC at Professor Thoms where the password is, "swordfish." If you think Joey drools a lot at the contest, you should see him at the afterparty)

In 2011 Major League Eating reversed their stance on Title 9 in athletics and made a female only division of the Nathan's contest. For many years, the greatest female eater of all time, Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas was the champ, but what people eat in Vegas, doesn't usually stay in Vegas, and after a ten pound bowl of "Phozilla" Miki Sudo won $1500 and a billboard of her likeness and entered the ranks of Major League Eating. She is currently ranked #4 overall and last July 4th she ate 34 hot dogs to ascend to Hot Dog Queen supremacy. Rumor has it she has broken 50 hot dogs in practice and because she doesn't have to qualify, she will likely be spectator on April 25th in her Vegas hometown. Since she doesn't have hot dog skin in the men's game, it will be interesting to see if she cheers on the skinny jeans-clad man who will undoubtably break Joey Chestnut's Vegas record of 50.

There are few certainties in competitive eating, but Matt "Megatoad" Stonie will win the Las Vegas qualifier by a large margin. He has broken the 50 hot dogs barrier several times and finished behind Joey on July 4th by five with 56 hot dogs. But why is the Megatoad headed to Vegas so early in the hot dog circuit unless he wants to make a statement, draw a line in the frankfurt detritus that says, "You shall not pass!" Usually, he will wait until the last East Coast qualifier to get one more run in before the big day. Perhaps the NY NY casino has beaconed him, tempted him, with the interesting circumstances of this year's contest. Joey "Jaws" Chestnut had said he would break Kobayashi's 6-time consecutive champion record and then retire, but now Joey is heading towards number 9. On July 4th, no one beats Joey -- no one. He knows his yearly income is based on those digestive 10 minutes, but more than that -- he is unstoppable when it comes to Nathan's Famous hot dogs. He is like Lance Armstrong on a bike (drug testing has yet to come to Major League Eating) or Mike Tyson in the ring. There is something primal about the way Joey eats, his body shakes and bobs like a New Orleans jazz trombone player, but his hot dogs input is almost robotic. He is a jazz-playing Cro-Magnon robot who has no time for mustard, ketchup, or losing. Where other eaters (myself included) rely on gimmicks like costumes or pyrotechnics, Joey has said his sole gimmick, "Is winning." He wins, even wearing high-waisted Mom jeans. The Megatoad, in his painted on skinny jeans, stands as Joey's nearest competition. The Megatoad has bested Chestnut in gyoza (384 in 10 minutes ), slug burgers, (43 in 10 minutes), and pumpkin pie (20 pounds 13 ounces in eight minutes), and perhaps he sees an opening this year. Both competitors are from and live in San Jose, California, but Joey has gone suburban. He owns a house, a dog, and last year, pre-contest proposed to his girlfriend, Nestle on stage at Coney Island. I asked him if MLE or ESPN wanted him to propose after the contest and they did, but Joey felt that after 60-plus hot dogs, he couldn't bend on one knee and didn't want to throw up or crap himself, thus ruining the heart-sweeping gesture. This man knows romance. Nestle said yes. Joey won the contest.

Joey and Nestle's wedding is in early May -- prime hot dog training season. If they honeymoon will it be somewhere tropical and if so where is the nearest Nathan's stand? This could be a problem for Joey's dogmatic and bun approach to Coney Island. Is the Megatoad counting on Joey being out-of-shape come July? Vegas is a town made for guys like me who like whiskey, cigars, buffets, and strippers available 24 hours a day. The Megatoad is a near teetotaler, a nutritionalist, and eschews peeler joints the way I avoid vegans. He would rather stay home and make Youtube videos eating obscene amounts of food in 60 seconds (37 mozzarella sticks, 8 filet-o-fish, and 32 peanut butter cups.) The NY NY Hotel & Casino is not a place for the weak-willed, the hesitant, the unsure. It is where hot dog eaters, like Joey Chestnut and Miki Sudo go, "All in," before the July 4th final. The Megatoad is poised to join those champions on April 25th. Will he hit 60 hot dogs? More? There is nothing in Las Vegas for him, except for those ten minutes of hot dogs and buns and in the gambling mecca that is the NY NY Hotel & Casino, always bet on the man with nothing to lose.

Crazy Legs Conti gambles on 1/2 priced all-you-can eat sushi at Ashiya 2 on 1st avenue near Coyote Ugly.