Competitive eating is a hard-hearted mistress, courted by many but gracing few with even a moment of her fickle affection. Most who enter a contest never do so again, and even those who do usually manage only a brief, painful and unheralded career before they wise up at last.
Why not try a little eating, you might think? And pretty soon you realize, it's this sport that'll chew you up and spit you out.
All of which only makes Crazy Legs Conti's eight-year run at the table so incredible. Since his rookie year in 2002, Conti has established himself as the clown prince of competitive eating, not a money leader in the Kobayashi/Chestnut mold, perhaps, but a guy who's helped win fans for the sport around the world, from a goodwill trip to challenge sailors stationed at Guantanamo Bay to eating his way to freedom from a "popcorn sarcophagus" at the premiere of his 2004 documentary. Even with 3.5 pounds of pancakes and bacon in his belly (a record), the man knows how to keep it light.
This Sunday afternoon, Conti's taking on some of Oklahoma's hungriest in a 10-minute race to eat Nathan's Famous hot dogs, and the stakes couldn't be higher. It's one of 15 qualifying contests for a place at the big Fourth of July Nathan's championship at Coney Island, and if Conti wins on Sunday, he'll earn his ninth straight berth at the big table. To win, he'll have to beat Sean "Flash" Gordon, Major League Eating's 15th-ranked eater. (While Conti is ranked 14th today, his personal best of 25 hot dogs and buns is five fewer than Gordon's mark.)
In anticipation of Sunday's qualifying bout in Oklahoma, we chatted with Conti about how he'll approach Sunday's contest, then moved on to some broader talk about the sport more generally. Conti's one of the guys who genuinely cares about eating, and eating's been good to him in return. After 10 years of growth fueled by the Koabayashi-Chestnut rivalry, Conti is circumspect about the sport's next moves, and about why he's still doing it after so many years. His interview follows after the jump.
So after you missed qualifying in the San Jose contest on May 8, what are you thinking heading into the qualifier at WinStar?
I had a rough go in San Jose -- they had some refrigerated buns and I ate 21, but George [Shea, Major League Eating judge and president] was not in a good mood so I had some deductions. I was a little messy. He said I finished with 16 and a half, usually I do about 25. A lot of it is hoping for the right conditions. You don't really want to eat hot dogs for 10 minutes straight at home in the basement with a stopwatch. A lot of it is just getting into that contest with the right mindset. I was not really mentally prepared for the contest in San Jose, I hadn't really thought it through.
This'll be my ninth time at the table consecutively if I can qualify. My focus is on that, to try and keep this streak alive. Longevity is a rarity in hot dog eating. I'll be doing a lot of previsualization and looking to really push myself in those last two minutes.
You've been at this longer than a lot of the top-ranked eaters around -- what's it taken to keep you going for eight years?
It's pretty tough. Year after year there's always rookies, there's always guys vying for your spot. It's hard to maintain a level of improvement. I'd say Tim "Eater X" Janus is the only guy that keeps going up in contests. I'm about a mid-20s eater. I don't know what it's going to take to get to 30, but that's kind of the goal.
If you're not just looking at driving up that hot dog count, then what's been keeping you going lately?
This year it was kind of new foods. The Isle of Capri Casino is doing six contest from PB- Banana sandwiches to catfish. Rumor has it they may do Rocky Mountain Oysters. The food is kind of what has invigorated me.
There's the altruistic aspect as well. I went to Guantanamo Bay through a Navy MWR program, ate against the sailor/soldiers. That was the best thing I've ever done as a competitive eater. I'd say it's a combination of new foods and new opportunities to connect to fans. You wouldn't imagine hot dog eating could get you to Gitmo.
You've really embraced the showmanship aspect of the sport, probably more than any other of the big eaters -- at this point, do you consider yourself primarily a competitor or an entertainer?
It's sort of an interesting gray area. There's Olympic wrestling which is clearly a real sport, then there's WWE wrestling which is more about pageantry. And I'd say competitive eating sort of falls in the middle.
There's nothing fake about eating 30 hot dogs and buns, but at the same time you need George and Rich Shea there, you need the announcers to give it a levity, because if not, it's really, in a way, a grotesque display of the human ability. If I went to a barbecue, there's no way I'd eat 30 hot dogs and buns. But the notion of competiton somehow makes it acceptable.
I consider myself kind of an ambassador to the sport. I'm not a huge earner with the prize money, I do like to travel, I like to see the world and I love food. Competitive eating allows me to take this journey.
It's a pretty interesting time for the sport, I think, now that we're coming out of 10 years ruled by Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut. The sport's grown so much, but at the same time -- Ryan Nerz, who's been an emcee at these contests for years, when he quit recently, he seemed to think the sport didn't have much room left to grow. So where do you think it's all headed from here?
Something exciting this year is that Kobayashi has moved to NY. He's finally going to get to train with Nathan's dogs. That'll add a dynamic to it where Kobayashi is not an unknown, he's in the US.
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But every year there's something new, whether it's a documentary or a video game. There's always a thing that brings the sport to the next level, so I do think it can get bigger. I don't think, you know, Hollywood is not making a Will Ferrell or a Jack Black competitive eating film, but we may not need that.
[We spoke to Crazy Legs last week, when he was headed to New Orleans for an oyster eating contest.]
The beauty of the sport is just the people who'll be in New Orleans this weekend, who come in to have a beer, eat some oysters and watch something that you can't see every day. The media stuff aside, it's really the event itself that brings people the fun and enjoyment from the circuit.
It doesn't really translate -- people have written books about 'Why would anyone do this?' or 'Why would anyone watch this?' But you come out to a contest, whether it's blueberry pie eating in Brownsville or oysters in New Orleans, and there's a real sense of community, kids watching, and that to me is the best. You step off the table at the end and you're interacting with the fans. We don't get on a private jet or head back to an exclusive hotel.