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Hot dog-eating champ Joey Chestnut won't compete this July 4. What’s the beef?

Joey Chestnut emerges victorious after eating 63 hot dogs in 10 minutes during the 2022 Nathans Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest in New York City.
Kena Betancur
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Getty Images
Joey Chestnut emerges victorious after eating 63 hot dogs in 10 minutes during the 2022 Nathans Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest in New York City.

Updated June 12, 2024 at 15:14 PM ET

The country’s most notorious hot dog-eating contest is moving forward without its star stomach, after 16-time champion Joey “Jaws” Chestnut was banned for inking a deal with a company that makes plant-based franks.

Organizers of the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest said Tuesday that they banned Chestnut from the July 4th event after he signed an endorsement deal with Impossible Foods, which recently launched a new marketing campaign specifically targeting meat-eaters.

Major League Eating (MLE), the organization that oversees professional competitive eating events (including but not limited to hot dogs), said in a statement that Chestnut had “chosen to represent a rival brand” rather than compete in its storied Coney Island contest.

“For nearly two decades we have worked under the same basic hot dog exclusivity provisions,” the statement said. “However, it seems that Joey and his managers have prioritized a new partnership with a different hot dog brand over our long-time relationship.”

Chestnut, who has demolished over a thousand hot dogs in the contest since his quest for Coney Island dominance began in 2005, said on social media that he was “gutted to learn from the media” about the ban.

“I love competing in that event, I love celebrating America with my fans all over this great country on the 4th and I have been training to defend my title,” Chestnut said, adding that the decision by MLE and Nathan’s will “deprive the great fans of the holiday’s usual joy and entertainment.”

He said he does not have a contract with MLE or Nathan’s Famous, and accused them of “looking to change the rules from past years as it relates to other partners I can work with.”

When asked about Chestnut’s response, MLE’s chair and co-founder George Shea told NPR over email, “I literally do not know what he is talking about.” Nathan's did not respond to a request for comment.

Impossible appears to be trying to stay out of the beef.

“We love Joey and support him in any contest he chooses,” a company spokesperson said in a statement shared with NPR. “It’s OK to experiment with a new dog. Meat eaters shouldn’t have to be exclusive to just one wiener.”

A spectator holds a sign with Joey Chestnut's face during the 2023 Nathan's Famous Fourth of July hot dog-eating contest.
Yuki Iwamura / AP
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AP
A spectator holds a sign with Joey Chestnut's face during the 2023 Nathan's Famous Fourth of July hot dog-eating contest.

Chestnut has dominated the Nathan’s contest for years

This marks the first time in almost two decades that Chestnut and his world-renowned jaws won’t be gracing the corner of Surf and Stillwell avenues on Coney Island.

Chestnut has dominated the July 4th contest since his first win in 2007, when he defeated — and sparked a years-long rivalry— with six-time champ Takeru Kobayashi, the so-called “godfather of competitive eating” who announced his retirement earlier this year.

He has consistently won the coveted Mustard Yellow Belt every year since, except for an underdog upset by Matt Stonie in 2015. The number of 56-gram, 6.75-inch hot dogs he’s guzzled over the years weigh the equivalent of the average UFC featherweight fighter (about 142 pounds) and would stack up to more than double the height of the Statue of Liberty, according to ESPN.

Chestnut has not only won the Coney Island contest 16 times, but holds all 10 highest totals in the event and even earned a Guinness World Record in 2021 for eating 76 hot dogs in 10 minutes at the competition.

“At this point, Joey Chestnut is the household name, the contest isn't the household name,” comedian Jamie Loftus, author of the book Raw Dog: The Naked Truth About Hot Dogs, told NPR. “They need him more than he needs them.”

The 40-year-old actually holds some 55 world records for guzzling a wide range of foods in a variety of competitions over the years, including: hard boiled eggs (141 in 8 minutes), pastrami (25 sandwiches in 10 minutes), shrimp wontons (390 in 8 minutes), grilled cheese sandwiches (47 in 10 minutes), pierogi (165 in 8 minutes) and whole turkeys (9.35 lbs in 10 minutes).

“Joey Chestnut is the greatest eater in history,” his MLE “bib sheet” reads. “That is not empty editorializing or bloviating. That is empirical fact.”

It’s no surprise that other meat brands and eating competitions are vying for Chestnut’s business. Chestnut regularly competes in “unbranded” concessions-eating contests at ballparks during the summer season, for example.

MLE said in its statement that it had tried to work with Chestnut in those pursuits.

“MLE and Nathan’s went to great lengths in recent months to accommodate Joey and his management team, agreeing to the appearance fee and allowing Joey to compete in a rival unbranded hot dog eating contest on Labor Day,” it said.

The Washington Post reports that the two sides were negotiating Chestnut’s latest contract when he announced he had signed a deal with a “plant-based firm,” and officially reached an impasse after he refused to carve out an exception that would have him represent all Impossible products except for hot dogs.

Men compete during the 2023 Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest on July 4, 2023 at Coney Island in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.
Alexi J. Rosenfeld / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Men compete during the 2023 Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest on July 4, 2023 at Coney Island in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

There’s plenty of competition — and still time for Chestnut to potentially come back

Chestnut’s absence leaves the lane clear for a potential hot dog-eating underdog in July.

Stonie, who briefly broke his winning streak nearly a decade ago, hasn’t competed in a Nathan’s contest since 2019. All eyes are now on current world no. 2 Geoffrey Esper, who finished second in last year’s competition after scarfing 49 dogs in 10 minutes.

The MLE describes Esper as “a true multi-disciplinary eater — as comfortable eating 83 slices of John's Incredible Pizza in 10 minutes as he is in eating 281 Hooters wings in the same amount of time.”

The Massachusetts-based electronics teacher told the Worcester Telegram this week that “I definitely have a shot this year,” but also named a few contenders to watch, including no. 4-ranked competitive eater Nick Wehry, fifth-ranked James Webb and ninth-ranked Pat Bertoletti.

There are two qualifiers left of four this season, in California this week and Washington, D.C. next week. The top male and female finisher from each one will compete in the July 4th event, which will be televised on ESPN. Nine-time champ Miki Sudo, who holds the women’s world record of 48.5 hot dogs in 10 minutes, will be among those competing as well.

The MLE says it’s not too late for Chestnut to change course and regain eligibility for the contest.

“Joey Chestnut is an American hero,” its statement said. “We would love nothing more than to have him at the Nathan’s Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest, which he has dominated for years. We hope that he returns when he is not representing a rival brand.”

MLE President Richard Shea told NPR that the ball is now in Chestnut’s court.

In the meantime, Chestnut doesn’t plan to hang up his jersey altogether, as he reassured his supporters on social media.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.