Joey Chestnut, injured and grieving, still favorite to win Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest

Joey Chestnut, beset by injuries, misfortune and grief as he heads into the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest on July 4, says he knows what’s up with the other competitive eaters.

“They’re talking amongst themselves,’’ Chestnut told USA TODAY Sports. “They’re thinking this is their year.’’

The chances of Chestnut, a 14-time champion, losing the contest are about as likely as Nathan’s running out of hot dogs during the ESPN telecast.

That is not to minimize what Chestnut, 38, has endured.

In December, Chestnut said, he suffered a compound fracture of his right leg and needed two surgeries, which led to his spending 13 days in the hospital.

Recently, he injured a tendon in his right leg while on a training run. He arrived in New York on Friday in a cast and on crutches.

“This is new ground for me, having to deal with this,’’ he said during an earlier interview.

Competitive eating champion Joey "Jaws" Chestnut wins the 2021 Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest with 76 hot dogs, breaking his personal best record of 75, on July 4, 2021.
Competitive eating champion Joey "Jaws" Chestnut wins the 2021 Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest with 76 hot dogs, breaking his personal best record of 75, on July 4, 2021.

There’s more.

In May, he tested positive for COVID-19 and was forced to drop out of a doughnut holes eating competition. Previously sidelined while recovering from his broken leg, Chestnut will enter the Nathan’s contest having competed in only one event this year, down from the four to five he’s usually competed in by this point.

Then, on June 16, his mother died.

With tears welling up in his eyes during a recent interview, Chestnut said, “She wouldn’t want me to miss the contest.’’

So how will all of this impact Chestnut on the Fourth of July?

“It’s definitely going to be a closer contest than it was last year,’’ he said.

We can only hope so.

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Last year Chestnut won the contest by 26 hot dogs while setting a personal record with 76. No other competitor has eaten 70 hot dogs during the 10-minute time limit, and Chestnut has won each of the past four contests by a margin of at least 20 hot dogs.

Here’s what should scare the competition most: during a practice session Tuesday, Chestnut said, he had 80 hot dogs on the table – evidence that he is gearing up to break another record.

“I did good,’’ he reported by text message, declining to provide details. But he did add, “It’s been nuts … practices this year have been inconsistent.’’

Even if inconsistency strikes, even if Chestnut performs at his worst, it’s unlikely anyone in the field is good enough to capitalize.

In 2015, Matt Stonie handed Chestnut his only defeat in the past 15 years. But he won't be competing, for the third year in a row, and he's lost the look of a serious rival.

Stonie, who ate 62 hot dogs while Chestnut ate 60, has not eaten more than 53 hot dogs at any Nathan’s contest since. 

The fiercest rival of Chestnut’s career was Takeru Kobayashi, the six-time champion from Japan. But Kobayashi’s contractual dispute with Nathan’s prompted him to stop competing in 2010.

There’s more reason to believe Chestnut might be as tough to beat as ever.

Despite the leg injuries and other adversity, Chestnut said, he has continued to do his signature jaw and throat exercises in pursuit of another Mustard Belt awarded to the Nathan’s winner.

“I’m lucky it’s not my jaw that’s injured,’’ he said. “Things could be worse.’’

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joey Chestnut still Nathan's contest favorite, despite injuries, loss