Legends of the Periphery: Food Hurricane, Takeru Kobayashi

From time to time even some of the greatest and most prolific heroes in all of sports fall through the cracks of obscurity and are lost to the world at large. “Legends of the periphery” celebrates the best of the best among the forgotten, the bizarre, the esoteric and the obscure.

In the world of competitive eating there is no name that looms larger than that of Takeru Kobayashi. In the past decade, the man dubbed “The Tsunami” has destroyed world records, devastated his challengers and almost single handedly turned eating into a skinny person’s sport. Born 1978 in Nagano, the Japanese native stands at a height of 5’ 8” and has been known to compete at weights as slim as 128 lbs. The International Federation of Competitive Eating describes Kobayashi as “the one man [ . . . ] every up and coming gurgitator wants to beat,” while many news outlets simply refer to him as a living legend.

Kobayashi broke onto the eating scene in 2001, at the Nathan’s Coney Island hot dog-eating contest when he shocked spectators and competitors alike shattering the previous record of 25 hot dogs in 12 minutes with his own unprecedented record of 50 hot dogs. Locals had heard rumours of a powerful force rising in the Orient but no one quite believed the fables of the man they called “The Tsunami.” Not only was this rookie eater demolishing all other competitors; he was less than half the size of his fellow speed eaters. Judges were so convinced that such a lofty number of hot dogs was unattainable they didn’t even have proper score cards to show the many onlookers Kobayashi was indeed bulldozing his way to the big 5-0. Officials scrambled to scribble down new numbers on the score sheet as Kobayashi scrambled to fit even more hot dogs down his tremendous gullet. That day a legend was born.

The competitive eating world had never seen a star of Kobayashi’s magnitude and for years all other eaters simply marveled at his ability to ingest solid matter. Any food that could be considered safe enough to eat at high speeds, Kobayashi would devour. From 2001-06 the sensation from Nagano would set records in most bratwurst sausages eaten in 10 minutes (58), most lobster rolls eaten in 10 minutes (41), most rice balls eaten in 30 minutes (20 lbs), most cow brains eaten in 15 minutes (17.7 lbs) and most hamburgers eaten in 8 minutes (97). In 2005, in a display of both endurance and raw talent, Kobayashi consumed 83 vegetarian dumplings in 8 minutes before eating 100 pork buns in 12 minutes less than 24 hours later. Truly, this was a god among mortals.

Of all the accolades, however, none rank quite as high as the feat Kobayashi began in 2001 with his first victory at the NCI hot dog-eating contest. Between 2001 and 2006 The Tsunami won an unparalleled six consecutive victories at the annual hot dog feast. Hot dog eating is where Kobayashi cemented his legacy and where the six-time champion also made famous his signature moves: the Kobayashi Shake and the Solomon method. The shake was coined by fans who noticed the odd jerky twist Kobayashi would do during competition in order make more space in his stomach. The Solomon method, conversely, was Kobayashi’s own term used to describe his eating strategy, which consisted of breaking his food in two rather than attempting to eat it whole.

As with so many champions, though, Kobayashi was flying increasingly closer and closer to the sun and would eventually have to fall from his great height. In 2003, Kobayashi’s first major defeat came not by the hands of humankind but, rather, a 1,089 lb Kodiak bear who ate 50 hot dogs in under three minutes in a televised man vs. bear showdown. Kobayashi managed to ingest an impressive 31 hot dogs but ultimately failed to dethrone one of the best eaters in all the animal kingdom. The eating champ was devastated by this loss but managed to rebound quickly, keeping all human competition at bay.

It wasn’t until four years later that the winds of change threatened to unseat Kobayashi’s place atop the competitive eating world. On June 25, 2007, The Tsunami made it public that he had seriously injured his jaw in training for the upcoming NCI hot dog-eating contest. The injury left Kobayashi almost completely unable to open is mouth. Determined to defend his title, however, Kobayashi returned to Coney Island, competing less than 10 days after his announcement. It was at this hot dog-eating contest that Kobayashi was finally defeated by the man who would soon become The Tsunami’s arch nemesis: Joey “Jaws” Chestnut. Chestnut, another relatively small eater, not only took Kobayashi’s title as hot dog champ, but three months later also took his title as hamburger champ when the Nagano native was forced to withdraw due to dental surgery. Within the span of a few short months a new rookie sensation had taken the gurgitation world by storm.

Down but not out, Kobayashi, in recent years, has been on a comeback tear, reclaiming various titles along the way. According to current IFOCE rankings, Kobayashi is ranked the number two competitive eater in the world, bested only by the number one Chestnut. Never one to quit, Kobayashi has made the most out of the superstar rivalry, famously going head-to-head with Chestnut on numerous occasions. Since 2007 the two legendary eaters have traded titles back and forth, consistently leveling the playing field of two. Undoubtedly theirs is a rivalry that will entertain the eating world for years to come. Until the time that The Tsunami decides to hang up his hot-dog-stained bib, we can all enjoy following the illustrious career, not only of a living legend, but of a man who forever changed the face of competitive eating.