Six-time world hot-dog-eating champion Takeru Kobayashi has been injured and may not compete in next week’s 90th annual competition at Nathan’s in Coney Island.
The Great Bun, as he is known to his fans, is seeing medical specialists in Tokyo this week in hopes of curing a mysterious case of stiff jaw that some scribes (OK, this scribe) is calling “jawthritis.”
Speculation immediately arose that Kobayashi’s “injury” was merely psychosomatic — a possibility, given that his world record was smashed earlier this month by American challenger Joey Chestnut, who ate 59-1/2 hot dogs and buns, nearly six more than Kobayashi’s personal best.
Chestnut is set to compete on July 4 — setting the stage for a battle of the ages.
But is Kobayashi ducking the fight? The legendary frank-ophile did not respond to a frantic e-mail from The Brooklyn Paper, he did explain the situation on his own Web site, Occupational Hazard.
“My jaw refused to fight any more,” said the 29-year-old phenomenon, describing a mandible that can only open as wide as a fingertip — not wide enough for the mashing and mawing that takes place every July 4.
He said the injury took place because he was pushing himself so hard during training.
“I feel ashamed that I couldn’t notice the alarm bells set off by my own body,” Kobayashi said. “But with the goal to win another title with a new record, I couldn’t stop my training so close to the competition. I was continuing my training and bearing with the pain, but finally I destroyed my jaw.”
And that saddened him.
“I want to be the pride of my mother,” he said in the blog entry.
International Federation of Competitive Eating Chairman George Shea didn’t know what to make of the stunning news.
“He’s listed as day-to-day with jaw pain,” Shea said. “He legitimately has an issue with his jaw. He intends to compete if his health will let him. But let me say this: It would shock me if Kobayashi, the champion that he is, were ducking a rematch with Chestnut.”
But Shea did hasten to add. “Then again, Joey’s 59-1/2 HDB performance was impressive.”
Maybe too impressive. After Chestnut broke the all-time hot-dog-eating record at a regional qualifying contest in Tempe, Ariz., many fans worried that he had shown his stomach too early, giving Kobayashi a full month to train even harder.
“I can’t get into all the mind games,” Chestnut said by cell phone from his secret training facility near San Jose. “This ‘injury’ could just be him trying to get in my head.”
Chestnut said he expects Kobayashi to eat 62 hot dogs on July 4 — and he also expects that he’ll do the champion one or two better.
“I can’t give myself the luxury of thinking he’s actually hurt,” Chestnut said, “because I don’t want to let up on my own training.”
Shea said the sport of competitive eating has never seen anything as shocking and as “monumental” as such a late-season injury that could force the holder of the coveted Mustard-Yellow International Belt to drop out of the contest.
“It’s like Secretariat having to drop out of the Belmont because of a fever,” Shea said. “And what’s worse, Chestnut fans want Kobayashi to be fully healthy because they think their man could legitimately beat him. So if Koby is playing hurt, it diminishes what they believe will be a Chestnut triumph.”
In his exclusive interview with The Brooklyn Paper, Chestnut disagreed. “If I go out there and break my own world record, no matter how many Kobayashi eats, it’s only fair to say that I would have beaten him even if he was 100 percent healthy,” he said.
In an unrelated injury story, the 7-foot-6 Indian giant, P. Theyagarjan, who is scheduled to compete next week, has fallen and injured his foot.
Theyagarjan, the chicken tika-masala-eating champion of the world, suffered the fall last week, and now it’s hard for him to walk, Shea said.
“It really is true what they say: the bigger they are, the harder they fall,” Shea said. “He’s also day-to-day.”