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Will Kobayashi be able to wolf dogs on the Fourth?

6/28/2007

NEW YORK -- It's like Tiger Woods tearing his rotator cuff,
or LeBron James blowing out his knee. Takeru Kobayashi, the
six-time defending Nathan's hot dog eating champion, received a
chilling diagnosis: Jaw pain that limits how far he can open his mouth.

The disclosure set stomachs rumbling throughout the dog-eat-dog
world of competitive eating in the days before the annual
Independence Day chowdown.

On his blog earlier this week, the 29-year-old said a mouthful
with the news that he was visiting a specialist and a chiropractor
for relief of the bum jaw. "Already I can't open my jaws more than
just a little bit," he wrote.

Word of the champ's woes spread quickly from Kyoto to Coney
Island.

Some believe it is a ploy to unnerve his bun-swallowing rival,
Joey Chestnut, who recently broke Kobayashi's world record by
downing 59½ dogs in 12 minutes. Others suggest it's a dodge to
avoid Chestnut.

Or maybe it's true: a half-dozen years of inhaling hot dogs at
the rate of one every 14 seconds really has hurt Kobayashi's
overworked jaw.

Kobayashi was keeping his mouth shut Thursday, although he
issued a statement promising to pursue treatment. "I intend to do
everything I can to treat this condition in what little time I
have," he said.

"I look forward to facing my fellow competitors on July 4," he
said Thursday, although there was no guarantee that would happen.

A weak jaw won't cut the mustard in a competition where the
winner will likely need to down more than 50 hot dogs and buns.
During his six years as champion, the 165-pound Kobayashi has
consumed 301¼ hot dogs -- a string of performances that made him the
Michael Jordan of mass consumption.

His personal best was 53¾ last year. Chestnut, who smashed that
mark June 2 in Phoenix, was among those perplexed by Kobayashi's
reported condition.

"I hate to call anybody a coward, and I wouldn't call him
that," said Chestnut, 23, from his San Jose, Calif., home. "But I
don't know. He's shown up the six previous years. It's a strange
coincidence, now that he's the underdog."

No less an expert than Washington Post columnist Tony
Kornheiser, on his ESPN show "Pardon The Interruption," suggested
Kobayashi was trying to lull Chestnut into lowering his guard.

"I think he's playing possum," Kornheiser said.

Chestnut, despite his skepticism, acknowledged Kobayashi might
have strained his jaw while training for the event. "Your jaw and
the muscles in your esophagus are the first to get sore," he
explained.

The Japanese have recently dominated the annual event, which
started on Brooklyn's beachfront in 1916. The only American winner
since 1996 was New Jersey's Steve Keiner in 1999. Two years later,
Kobayashi -- whose voracious appetite earned him the nickname
"Tsunami" -- began his belly busting reign.

Kobayashi plans to appear in Coney Island for Wednesday's event
even if he can't compete, said Rich Shea, one of the founders of
the International Federation of Competitive Eating.

At the very least, Shea hoped, Kobayashi would present this
year's winner with the mustard yellow belt emblematic of eating
excellence.

"I think, like all great champions, Kobayashi doesn't want to
shy away from competition," Shea said. "But I don't want to put
words in his mouth. And if I did, they'd have to be monosyllabic --
not too much for him to swallow."