PHILADELPHIA -- I have found the heart of the Philly sports scene ... and it isn't pretty.
You know Paulie, Adrian's brother in "Rocky"? Multiply him by the thousands, dress them in Eagles jerseys, fill each with a six-pack and stick them in a line so long it wraps around the Wachovia Center, throughout the parking lot and practically into New Jersey. Sprinkle some of these guys among the parked cars where they can urinate in semi-privacy. Carpet the lot with crushed beer cans and broken beer bottles. Throw in a cold wind and a winter rain.
Now, close the arena doors a half-hour before the competition begins because there is no more room inside the 20,000-seat center, forcing thousands of disappointed and angry fans to go home without the pleasure of watching 29 contestants eat as many chicken wings as possible in 14-minute rounds.
Oh, and did I mention? It's 5:30 a.m. on a weekday. That's right -- 5:30 in the morning.
"Oh well," one philosopher says after being turned away. "This just means we can go to the (strip) bar earlier."
Welcome to the Wing Bowl, an annual tradition that captures the worst of Philadelphia's sports reputation. If you think the Super Bowl is too understated, if pro wrestling is too high-brow, if Detroit's Devil's Night is too tame, this is the competition for you. Basically, the Wing Bowl is an excuse for Philly fans to drink excessively, crowd into the Wachovia Center, ogle large-breasted women and heckle and throw crap at contestants.
In other words, it's like the Flyers are playing again.
Begun a dozen years ago by a local radio station, the early morning wing-eating contest coincides with the station's rush-hour show and has grown so popular that the fans (almost exclusively male) charter buses and tailgate all night to make sure they can be among the 20,000-plus who get a seat. Overshadowing the Super Bowl when the Eagles aren't playing, Wing Bowl is such a Philadelphia institution that the Phanatic shows up, thereby lending an air of dignity to the affair.
Admission is free and there are no tickets -- it's first-come, first-in festival seating -- and the guy next to me said he got to the arena at 2:30 a.m. That's three and a half hours before the 6 a.m. start and there was no guarantee he'd get in.
It was like a Who concert, only less orderly.
|THE LIBERTY TOUR|
Jim Caple has taken to the streets of Philadelphia as the Eagles and their fans get ready for the Super Bowl:
I would not have gotten in had I not fought my way through the drunken crowd, nearly lost my reproductive capability while climbing a fence, elbowed my way through another pack of drunks and fortuitously come across Philadelphia Soul fullback Chris Ryan, whom I had interviewed earlier in the week. Ryan was competing in the contest and he slipped me a pass, then led the way through the mob to the employee entrance.
But hell. I had it easy getting into the Wing Bowl compared to the contestants, each of whom had to qualify through some extraordinary display of eating prowess. If you have wireless capability, you might want to move your laptop closer to the bathroom before reading these feats.
Rich the Butcher ate a pound of raw meat in one minute.
Hank the Tank ate five pounds of meatballs
Wing Kong ate 2½ pounds of liverwurst in seven minutes.
(See? I warned you. And it's about to get worse.)
Wolfman ate two pounds of shrimp with 160 mealworms. Obi Wing ate 60 live cockroaches. And if you think the mealworms and cockroaches sound repulsive, bear in mind that Cookie Jarvis ate six pounds of spinach.
And get this -- Uncle Buc ate a 1½ pound candle. No, I'm not making that up. He ate a wax candle. Which I can only hope was not burning at the time. Or, if it was, it was nowhere near Moses Lerman after he finished eating six pounds of baked beans.
I try to imagine what it would be like to eat such amounts of food so quickly. Worse, I try to imagine how these guys felt afterward.
"How did I feel afterward? I felt like (crap)," Wing Kong tells me. "Are you kidding?"
So why did you eat 2½ pounds of liverwurst?
"Let me ask you, what's the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word liverwurst?" Wing Kong asks, correctly anticipating the inevitable grimace. "Right. That's everyone's reaction. No one likes liverwurst. But I do. Just not in 2½ pound quantities. But I figured no one else would be able to do it."
He's probably right about that.
The first two hours of Wing Bowl are devoted to the procession of contestants, in which the eaters and their entourages enter the floor and slowly circle the arena while fans hurl cups of beverages and assorted other garbage at them. It's like what you would get if you mixed the Olympics opening ceremonies with Mardi Gras and spring break and crammed it all inside a hockey rink. Except in place of each country's national anthem, throw in video of projectile vomiting from a past contest.
Three-time champion El Wingador, a 300-pound local truck driver whose real name is Bill Simmons (no, not the same one), is easily the fan favorite, entering the arena to enormous applause. He was upset last year by 99-pound Sonya Thomas, aka the Black Widow, and the crowd clearly wanted revenge Friday. They showered so much garbage and jeers on Thomas that she had to be rushed to the stage under protection. They also derisively chanted "U-S-A!, U-S-A!" at Thomas, who lives in Alexandria, Virginia but is of Asian descent. As I said, this competition is nothing but class.
The actual competition works like this: The 29 contestants all compete in a 14-minute first round, eating wings from platters presented by the scantily-clad "Wingettes." After a short break, the top 10 eaters battle in another 14-minute round. Then the top few go on to a two-minute eat-off to determine the champion. Any vomiting or purging is an automatic disqualification -- in the Wing Bowl, what goes in, must stay in.
All wing totals are cumulative and last year Thomas won with a final tally of 167. "I'm shooting for 200 this year," she says backstage. "I can do it."
Perhaps, but I don't know how. She weighs 99 pounds and makes Mary-Kate Olsen look obese. Still, she holds the following records:
And 65 hard-boiled eggs in six minutes, 40 seconds.
(If you need to return to the bathroom, I'll wait.)
Compared to those feats, the actual wing-eating is a rather dull affair, so much so that fans begin drifting out of the stands (or simply passing out) midway through the first round. Of the fans remaining, many turn their eyes from the competition to search the stands on the off-chance that the handful of women in attendance might bare their breasts. Sure enough, many oblige, as their dates beam with pride. And Philly fans wonder why they get a bad rep?
Now, if you find the brazen display of bare female breasts offensive, you're not only probably reading the wrong webpage, you obviously didn't see the 6-6, 350-pound man who was wearing a thong.
In an attempt to keep the crowd interested during the frequent and long commercial breaks, as well as maintaining the high standards of Wing Bowl, there is also a spectacular halftime act. A guy repeatedly smashes full beer cans against his head until they burst in an explosion of liquid and suds, then finishes his act by crushing one against the buttocks of his female assistant.
I tell you, it's like being at Cirque du Soleil. The final two-minute round produces an astounding tie between El Wingador and the Black Widow, forcing another two-minute round. Given how much they've already eaten and their expressions at hearing this news, I fear this could be the first accurate use of the term "sudden-death overtime."
Fortunately, the overtime does not prove fatal. And much to the remaining crowd's delight, Wingador pulls out a narrow victory, besting the Black Widow by one wing, 142-141.
Filled with wings, the contestants disburse to do whatever cool-down periods they require (I'd rather not speculate).
Sated by victory, the crowd spills out of the arena to head home for bed, the office for what would almost certainly be a most unproductive day of work, the strip joint for more high-class entertainment or, just as likely, to the local unemployment office.
Meanwhile, I return to my hotel, bleary-eyed, a little nauseous and convinced that I have just seen the most disgusting competition known to man.
And then I do a Google search and find out there is a mayonnaise-eating contest.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.