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Hot dog champ says jaw pain may prevent him from competing in July 4 eating contest

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Posted: June 28, 2007 10:01 p.m.
Updated: July 13, 2007 5:00 a.m.
    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 that could end his Fourth of July roll: a creaky jaw.
    The disclosure by the Japanese eating machine 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. ‘‘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 59 1/2 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 301 1/4 hot dogs — a string of performances that made him the Michael Jordan of mass consumption.
    His personal best was 53 3/4 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,’’ said Shea. ‘‘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.’’
    ———
    On the Net:
    http://www.nathansfamous.com/nathans/contest/

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