Joey Chestnut has become the Michael Jordan of the men's Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest, and the 37-year-old competitive eater will be vying for his 14th Mustard Belt in 15 years on Sunday for the annual Independence Day event.
But his dominance has left little suspense over the last several years. His ascension to the top of the sport was fueled with a rivalry and excitement, while an upset loss of Chestnut in 2015 stands as one of the most exciting eating contests.
Sure, we enjoy watching Chestnut eating 75 dogs (his world record in 2020) and debate whether his prowess is on par with Rafael Nadal's 13 French Open titles. But the suspense of close contests has been most intriguing over the years.
USA TODAY Sports takes a look back at the most thrilling hot dog eating contests of all-time, all of which the 13-time champion was involved.
Six-time champion Takeru Kobayashi, the former goliath of the sport, was on pace to out-do his own record and finished with 63 hot dogs. But then up-and-comer Chestnut pulled off the upset, dethroning Kobayashi by downing 66 hot dogs in 12 minutes.
Kobayashi came back with determination and grit the following year, and it was the first time the contest moved down to 10 minutes instead of 12. Chestnut and Kobayashi were as close as they'd ever been in the duel, giving sports fans a Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson-esque rivalry with a Mark McGuire vs. Sammy Sosa feel. This led to the first tie (59 dogs in 10 minutes for both competitors) and subsequent eat-off since 1980. It ultimately saw Chestnut barely, just barely, edge Kobayashi by finishing a plate of five hot dogs in 50 seconds – seven seconds faster than Kobayashi.
After winning eight consecutive Mustard Belt titles, Chestnut took his foot off the gas and Matt Stonie played the Buster Douglas to Chestnut's Mike Tyson. It went down to the wire, and Stonie trumped the sport's kingpin by eating 62 dogs to Chestnut's 60.
It's hard to select a Chestnut performance for this list because he essentially sets a world record every year, out-doing himself. Chestnut this year vs. Chestnut last year is always must-watch TV. But watching Chestnut consume 70 hot dogs in 10 minutes was certainly something, especially considering he left then reigning champ Stonie (53 dogs that year) in the dust. This year was the major start of his separation from the pack of all his chasing competitors.
Chestnut told the Boston Globe in 2012: "I will not stop until I reach 70. This sport isn't about eating. It's about drive and dedication, and at the end of the day, hot dog eating challenges both my body and my mind." On that note, he eclipsed another threshold after hitting the 70-dog plateau four years earlier. His still-standing world record of 75 dogs came under trying circumstances last year in a remote location with plexiglass separating competitors due to COVID-19. Without crowds and cheering as they normally would at the signature Coney Island location, Chestnut had to find his own inner motivation – and he did.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest 2021: Joey Chestnut's greatest hits