The Lion in Winter?

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His name is Bobert Paulson. His name is Bobert Paulson. His name is Bobert Paulson.

Joey Chestnut has done it again.  On July 4, 2018, the man, the myth, the legend, downed 74 hot dogs to win the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, outpacing second-place finisher Carmen Cincotti by 10 hot dogs.  By doing so, Mr. Chestnut not only carried off the Mustard Belt for the 11th time, extending his own record, but ate a world record amount of hot dogs and buns in a ten minute trial.  Quite a day for Mr. Chestnut.  Quite a day for America.

What is amazing, however, is just how much better Mr. Chestnut is proving to be than not only his competition, but any competitive eater in history.  Japan’s Takeru Kobayashi has the second-most Nathan’s titles of all time, with 6.  Chestnut has nearly doubled that total.  Only once since Mr. Chestnut first won the title in 2007 has he yielded it to another.  That happened in 2015, when Matthew “Megatoad” Kai Stonie ate 62 hot dogs, and was lucky that Mr. Chestnut had an off day, finishing with 60.  Chestnut had not performed so poorly since 2010, when the world of hot dog eating was in a very different place.  At the time it was fair to wonder, had Joey lost a step?

Mr. Chestnut responded in 2016 with a resounding NO, cramming a new Nathan’s record 70 hot dogs to regain his title.  Stonie could only look on in wonder, finishing an impressive 53 hot dogs, and still not even coming close to the champ.      Earlier in the season, he had set a new world record of 73, which stood until yesterday.  Mr. Chestnut pounded 72 hot dogs while consolidating his return to the top in 2017, and of course ate 74 yesterday to solidify that he is the best there is, the best there ever was and, let’s be honest, possibly the best there ever will be.

The question becomes: how long can Mr. Chestnut keep this going?  Competitive eating is, in a sense, a young man’s game.  Mr. Chestnut surpassed his closest analogue, Mr. Kobayashi, when the latter was 30 years old.  Throughout its history, Nathan’s has been won by men in their 20s and early 30s, with only a rare exception even approaching the podium beyond age 40.  Any thoughts of an older gentleman taking the title were essentially entirely thwarted by Mr. Kobayashi, who also heralded in what may be called the modern-age of eating.  Given his dominance, and the even longer run by Mr. Chestnut, older athletes have had little hope of winning a Nathan’s title for nearly 20 years.

Mr. Chestnut is now 34 years old.  Mr. Cincotti, who was born on July 4, 1992, just turned 26.  Surely others are coming up behind him.  Natural progression would suggest that at some point, Mr. Chestnut will begin to descend from his lofty heights, and another, younger man will take his place at the top of the dog pile.  While that man, be it Mr. Cincotti or another, will match Joey’s apex is another question altogether.  Father time, however, is undefeated.  Can Mr. Chestnut really continue to improve?  Is he capable, at age 35, of 75 dogs and buns?  76?  Only time, the only thing that appears ready and able to take down Mr. Chestnut, will tell.

In the meantime, please do not overlook what Mr. Chestnut has accomplished.  He joins the heralded Bill Russell Boston Celtics as 11-time champion in American sports.  He may (or may not!) be a lion in winter, but what a lion he is.