The table is set for the crowning of the next king of competitive eating. California's Joey "Jaws" Chestnut is heading out to New York's Coney Island as America's greatest hope to match appetites with Japanese hot dog legend Takeru Kobayashi.
It's been a storybook year for Chestnut, the 22-year-old engineering student from San Jose State University who recently devoured 173 chicken wings in 30 minutes to win Philadelphia's coveted Wingbowl.
In recent months, the California kid has beaten just about every top-ranked American eater, setting records in grilled cheese sandwiches (47 in 10 minutes), waffles (18.5 in 10 minutes) and deep-fried asparagus (6.3 pounds in 11.5 minutes).
Then, a few weeks ago, Chestnut knocked on the door of greatness, becoming the first American to eat 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes in Las Vegas so that he could qualify for the Coney Island contest.
Chestnut's achievement marks the first time that any competitive eater other than Kobayashi had broken the 50-dog barrier -- and it now raises America's hope that the Nathan's Famous Mustard Yellow Hot Dog Championship Belt might return to its homeland.
"Kobayashi can't be champ forever," says Chestnut. "I can't say I'm going to win. But I think we'll see a new hot dog record. I just hope it's me who sets it."
The July Fourth hot dog championship -- a New York tradition since 1916 -- has become a national event in recent years, with live broadcasts on ESPN and the ABC Radio network, and this year's contest promises to be the most intense battle yet.
Often called the Lance Armstrong of competitive eating, the 27-year-old Kobayashi has won the Coney Island showdown five years in a row. In 2001, when he downed 50 dogs in 12 minutes, he doubled the world's record, set a year earlier by another Japanese eater.
The 5-foot, 6-inch champ has truly revolutionized eating contests, which were once thought of as a large-man's sport. He weighed just 130 pounds when he first took the Coney Island championship, and even now, at a lean 175 pounds, he's less than half the weight of many of his rivals.
In 2004, Kobayashi set his high mark of 53.5 hot dogs. But last year, he regressed to 49 hotdogs. That was still more than enough to win -- the next closest competitor consumed 38 -- but now the competition is changing.
"Joey Chestnut is clearly going to change the face of American competitive eating. He may become the greatest eater in America, if not the world," says George Shea, president of the International Federation of Competitive Eating.
Chestnut began his eating career just two years ago at a Mexican restaurant near school. As the fourth of five kids in an Italian-Irish family, he had all the preparation he needed to get into eat-for-glory sporting, he says.
"We always had enough food to go around," he says. "But if you wanted seconds, you had to act fast."
When Chestnut arrived in New York City on Friday, four of his siblings were with him, and he'll need their support to take on competitive eating's greatest legend -- a man who once challenged a kodiak bear to a two-minute eat-off on Japanese TV.
While Kobayashi lost that contest, he seldom loses. PinnacleSports.com has pegged the champ as a 1-to-3 favorite to regain his crown. At 3-to-1, Chestnut is given the best odds among the 18 challengers.