Takeru Kobayashi, Joey Chestnut's onetime rival, says he could win hot dog eating contest: 'I'm still the best'

Joey Chestnut doesn’t compete in the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest so much as he owns it.

He has won 14 times in the past 15 years, and by increasingly dominant margins. Last year, Chestnut ate a record-breaking 76 hot dogs and buns during the 10-minute time limit. No one else ate more than 50 while the most serious rival of his career remained out of sight.

The man most capable of beating Chestnut on Monday during the Fourth of July contest held on Coney Island in New York will be more than 6,700 miles away.

Takeru Kobayashi, the six-time champion at the Nathan’s contest and Chestnut’s last serious rival, will be in Japan with his six Mustard Belts – awarded annually to the contest winner – and self-belief.

“I know I’m still the best,’’ Kobayashi, 44, said through a translator last week.

But since 2010, he has refused to compete in the Super Bowl of competitive eating after a contract dispute with Nathan’s and Major League Eating, the professional circuit where the two rivals could have taken their eating revelry across the country.

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Between 2005 and 2009, the two most dominant figures in the history of competitive eating faced off five times. Kobayashi won the first two contests and Chestnut won the next three, with one decided in overtime by an “eat-off.”

Kobayashi has never eaten more than 64½ hot dogs at Nathan’s, almost a dozen shy of Chestnut's personal best, but says he has eaten 73 in practice and is as capable as ever.

Despite his superior numbers in competition, Chestnut, 38, knows there’s only one way to determine who’s the best – going head-to-head with Kobayashi.

“I would love to,’’ he said. “Maybe we’ll go to Qatar this year for the World Cup and do something there.’’

There is one serious obstacle: Kobayashi said he will never participate in a contest that involves Nathan’s or Major League Eating. Skeptics think the grudge is a way to avoid facing Chestnut after fading from the competitive-eating circuit.

Kobayashi said he hasn’t competed since winning a taco-eating contest in 2019. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he explained, he has been living in Tokyo and there were no competitive-eating contests because of the strict protocols.

During an interview last week, Kobayashi said he likely will compete again but isn’t sure when or where.

“I could just retire,’’ he said, with his wife, Maggie, translating. “But I’m always thinking of what that last thing could be when I retire. Like, is it time yet? Is there something I want to do?’’

He did not rule out a showdown with Chestnut, and he dismissed the idea that at 44 he’s past his prime.

While filming for a recent documentary, Kobayashi said, he devoured more than 30 hot dogs in a few minutes without having trained. He also said since leaving Nathan’s, he has competed in many contests and vanquished every challenger.

“The youngest and best of them,’’ he said. “I understand a certain peak to physical abilities in the aging process, but records in sports are not only made by youthful abilities. Records are made by focus, training, strategy, techniques and knowledge.

“Techniques can keep getting better as you get older and that is what has kept me here at the top. So I am not concerned about competing at my age. I know I’m still the best.”

Chestnut clearly thinks otherwise. In his third appearance at Nathan's contest, Chestnut dethroned Kobayashi and won the next two contests before Kobayashi's contract dispute.

In 2009, the last time the rivals faced off, Chestnut ate a then-record 68 hot dogs and Kobayashi ate 64½.

“I would tell the American eaters my goal was to beat him and they would get mad at me because they thought he was unbeatable,’’ Chestnut said. “It was easier for them to believe somebody was unbeatable than believe somebody could beat him.

“He even thought he was unbeatable. He told people he had a special stomach. And so those were great years and it’s a shame that Major League Eating and him had a falling out. It’s a bummer.’’

But the possibility of one last showdown, whether in Qatar, Coney Island or another hot dog-friendly destination?

“Who knows,'' Chestnut said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joey Chestnut's one-time rival Takeru Kobayashi: 'I'm still the best'