There is much controversy about how and when the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest started, but we’ll give you the abridged version here.
We’ll start with the Nathan’s website, which reads: “According to legend, on July 4, 1916, four European immigrants hold an impromptu hot dog eating contest to settle an argument about patriotism.” They give the first title to Irish immigrant James Mullen, who allegedly ate 13 Nathan’s hot dogs in buns in 12 minutes.
But let’s just say the historical accounts would allow that the most important part above is “according to legend.” Because there’s about nothing documented to back this up, and even the Gray Lady got sucked into printing the whole-cloth fabrication.
We have some documented evidence of a truck driver named Walter Paul eating 127 hot dogs in 60 minutes in 1967, but whether there were buns involved or not is unknown. There’s not much information on any successive “annual” contests until 1972, including no winners listed for 1973, and we’re still unsure if a contest even took place.
The contest started to pick up more publicity and steam with limousine service manager Jay Green taking home titles in 1988, 1989, and 1990. He peaked at 15.5 hot dogs in 12 minutes, showing how far progress has been made by the eating athletes of today.
Green shared the 1990 title with Mike DeVito, who also won in ‘93 and ‘94. The first international winner was Japan’s Hirofumi Nakajima, who took home mustard belt for the first time in 1997, and followed it up in 1998.
Plenty of controversy entered the contest beginning with the dynasty of Takeru Kobayashi from 2001-2006. It ended with him refusing to join Major League Eating and not being allowed to participate in the competition after losing each year from 2007 to 2009. There was also an arrest on-site at Nathan’s in 2010 (he was later released with no charges), and plenty of accusations of drug use from fans at the event.
Despite having won six times, Kobayashi was removed from the Wall of Fame at Nathan’s due to the controversies, but his place in the history of both Nathan’s and competitive eating is undeniable.
The man Kobayashi lost to has dominated the event ever since. Joey Chestnut has won 14 of the last 15 competitions, and set the world record last year with 76 hot dogs eaten in 10 minutes. “Joey Jaws” will be back for more in 2022, and the GOAT of hot dog eating can’t really be questioned at this point. Chestnut is the Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, and Wayne Gretzky of Major League Eating.
On the women’s side, it’s a lot easier. Since going to a dual gender format in 2011, there have only been three winners: Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas from 2011 to 2013, Miki Sudo from 2014 through 2020, and Michelle Lesco last year. Sudo sat out of last year’s competition due to her pregnancy, but will be back to reclaim her belt this time around.