American Snatches Kobayashi's Mustard Belt

It was cheek-to-cheek, jaw-to-jaw, and when the final seconds ticked away, a photo finish revealed a new American champion.

Joey Chestnut, a California graduate student, unseated six-time defending champion Takeru Kobayashi of Japan at the 2007 Nathan's Famous International July Fourth Hot Dog Eating Contest.

On his way, he shattered his own record for hot dog consumption, slogging down 66 weiners in 12 minutes.

Kobayashi, whose jaw condition was questionable in the run up to this year's competition, swallowed 63 hot dogs -- keeping pace with Chestnut but never taking the lead. "I feel like I ate 66 hot dogs," Chestnut said after his win, clutching the Mustard Belt as sweat rested on his brow. "I'm not feeling great but I feel awesome that I won…I thought I'd be feeling worse."

After his momentous loss, Kobayashi proclaimed that he'll be out for blood in 2008. "I will definitely beat him next year," Kobayashi pledged.

For a month now, today's 92nd edition of the world's most-famous celebration of mastication has been looked at with great anticipation, and the event did not disappoint.

Both Chestnut and Kobayashi began the race consuming hot dogs at a blistering clip, and two and half minutes in, each competitor had consumed 23 hot dogs.

As the 14 other competitors faded into the background, the defending champion and the upstart were eating in their finest form. Kobayashi, seemingly permanently hunched over the table, tore his dogs and buns in two and simultaneously shoved both halves into his mouth. To his left, Chestnut put dog after dog straight into his mouth while periodically standing up straight and convulsing his body in apparent pain.

"I was clenching the muscles in my abdomen and putting everything down," Chestnut said after the match, describing his expressive technique.

Chestnut held a two or three dog lead for most of the race, but with 2 minutes left Kobayashi had caught up, and according to the hot dog counter, the two were even at 57 dogs each. With a minute left, the massive crowd, banging their mustard-colored Nathan's noisemakers, knew they were in for a record-breaking day when both Chestnut and Kobayashi ate their 60th wiener respectively, surpassing the record of 59.5 hot dogs the American had set last month.

During the final ten-second countdown both men crammed hot dogs into their mouth, and when the clock struck zero both of their counters read 63 hot dogs.

The match judge was called in to review the counts and there was controversy in the air as for a full minute after the end of the 12-minute race, Kobayashi had yet to swallow all of his final hot dog, and had even spit some out into his hands before putting it back in his mouth, an apparent violation of the competition's rules.

The issue became moot, however, because the judge recount revealed that Chestnut's tally was incorrect: he had in fact eaten 66, not 63 dogs, a full three more than Kobayashi and 6.5 more than the previous record.

"I realized [throughout the race] that they were way off," Chestnut said afterwards of the hot dog counters on stage.

Kobayashi said that his arthritic jaw, the subject of so much ink before today's event, did not hurt him as he scarfed down the dogs. But the pain before the event did impair his training, he said.

"I felt like I couldn't put out my best," the man nicknamed "The Tsunami" said after his second-place finish. "I'm going to make sure I'm fully recovered from the injury and then I'm going to come back."

Just a couple of hours before today's action, Kobayashi worked on his jaw flexibility with an acupuncturist, event promoter and emcee George Shea said.

Independence Day

The masses converged early to get a vantage point, gnashing hot dogs for breakfast despite the protests of vegetarians, one of whom wore a pea mascot outfit and waves a sign that reads, "Give Peas a Chance."

But the effort did nothing to ward off 50,000 fans eager to see this year's headlining head-to-head.

On June 2, Chestnut broke Kobayashi's 53.75 hot dog record, set at the 2006 championship. Chestnut consumed a whopping 59.5 dogs in 12 minutes, an ingestion rate of nearly one wiener every 12 seconds.

With that heroic feat at the competition's Southwest Regional qualifier, America's hopes of reclaiming the Mustard Belt, once a seemingly impossible dream in the face of Kobayashi's inimitable prowess, rose like a phoenix from the desert sands of Arizona.

Kobayashi, the world's best-known competitive eater and the competition's living legend, has claimed the prize six times in a row a dynasty by any sporting standard.

Since Chestnut's record-breaking day in June, the consumption-competition cognoscenti have been touting this year's Kobayashi-Chestnut bout, a rematch of the 2006 final in which Kobayashi vanquished the upstart by a mere 1.75 dogs in the Ali-Frazier of gastronomy.

Just when it seemed it couldn't get any more tense, the dream matchup took a dramatic turn 10 days ago when Kobayashi reported on his own blog that a jaw injury that left him unable to open his mouth more than the width of a fingernail may keep him out of this year's competition altogether.

Some accused Kobayashi of faking the injury in an attempt to gain a psychological edge over his opponent, an accusation strongly denied by the champion, who listed himself as "day-to-day" going into this afternoon's competition.

Chestnut paid homage to Kobayashi after the race, crediting him with taking competitive eating to the next level. When Kobayashi won the event in 2001 by eating 50 hot dogs, the highest winning number before then was just over 25 eaten by Kazutoyo Arai the year before.

After Kobayashi, "all the other eaters treated it like a sport. He's the reason it's where it is now," Chestnut said.

But the new champ was not too deferential. Asked if Kobayashi would ever defeat him again, he replied: "I don't think in hot dogs."