Arthritic Jaw Could Undo Icon's Hot Dog Reign

In the world of competitive eating, you can't make it anywhere if you can't open wide.

But the state of perhaps the most important tool in competitive eating legend Takeru Kobayashi's toolbox is in question after he posted a blog entry Sunday loosely translated as "Vocational Disease."

In it, Kobayashi paints a dire picture of his oral health, claiming that he has been diagnosed with a form of temporomandibular joint disorder -- pain in the joint that connects the lower jaw to his skull.

Kobayashi writes that he can only open his famous hatch as wide as a fingertip without suffering extreme pain and draws a comparison to a baseball pitcher with torn elbow ligaments.

His bombshell announcement comes less than 10 days before Kobayashi is expected at Coney Island to defend his run of six consecutive championships at Nathan's Famous July Fourth Hot Dog Eating Contest.

George Shea, a spokesman for Major League Eating -- the group that hosts the famous competition -- said that Kobayashi's condition was "day to day," but as far as the group knew, he would still attend next week's event.

"The only thing I can say is that the health and safety of our eaters is a top priority," Shea told ABC News.

Less than two weeks ago, contest organizers denied another Japanese report that Kobayashi would bow out of this year's event because of the March death of his mother. At the time, Shea disputed the report, insisting that Kobayashi already had a plane ticket and that his attendance was moving "full speed ahead."

Kobayashi's absence would be a huge blow to the annual event, which last year attracted an estimated 30,000 fans to Surf and Stillwell Avenues on Coney Island. Another 1.5 million people watched Kobayashi win his sixth straight title.

Competitive eating fans have been hyping this year's final, which would pin Kobayashi against American upstart Joey Chestnut, a 23-year-old engineering student who lost in the 2006 final but earlier this month shattered Kobayashi's record during qualifying in Phoenix, Calif.

Chestnut devoured 59.50 franks in 12 minutes in the southwest regional, easily eclipsing Kobayashi's existing mark of 53.75 dogs.

On the competitive eating blog EatFeats.com, one poster smelled a rat in the mounting Kobayashi speculation.

"Now word comes Koby has a toothache," a poster wrote. "If I was not cynical, I would see this as a storyline being laid in case Koby loses. This way Koby can lose to Joey while saving face in his mind."

For the 2007 rematch, Sportsbook.com, the Internet gambling Web site, currently has Kobayashi as the slight underdog. He is even money, while Chestnut is the 4-5 favorite. The rest of the field is collectively a 20-1 long shot.

Kobayashi claims in his blog posting that he would like to attend next week's competition and defend his string of championships in memory of his mother.

After that, however, Kobayashi's future is uncertain. The competitive eating world will find out soon if the injury will prove "a fatal wound" to Kobayashi's career, as he describes it on his blog.

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