Joey Chestnut Opens Up About Fourth of July Hot Dog Contest Ban

The biggest star in competitive eating detailed how he was banned from the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest, his upcoming matchup with longtime rival Takeru Kobayashi and much more in an exclusive interview with Sports Illustrated.
Nathan's Hot Dog Eating champion Joey Chestnut stretches his mouth before the Lugnuts game against the TinCaps on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, at Jackson Field in Lansing.
Nathan's Hot Dog Eating champion Joey Chestnut stretches his mouth before the Lugnuts game against the TinCaps on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, at Jackson Field in Lansing. / Nick King/Lansing State Journal / USA

There is perhaps no one as linked to the Fourth of July in the modern American mind as Joey Chestnut. 

Since 2005, he’s been a fixture at the Nathan’s Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island in Brooklyn, racking up championships and revolutionizing competitive eating in the process. (He’s won the event 16 times, including the past eight years in a row, and owns the world record of 76 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes.) But this summer brought a seismic shift for the contest. Major League Eating announced in the New York Post that Chestnut would not be able to eat at Coney Island this year because of his partnership with Impossible Foods, which sells plant-based hot dogs, therefore qualifying it as a competitor of Nathan’s. The reigning champion was effectively banned from the contest. 

The fallout was messy. Chestnut released a statement that said he’d learned of his ban only from the media, not from Major League Eating, adding that he did not have an individual contract with Nathan’s. “They are looking to change the rules from past years as it relates to other partners I can work with,” Chestnut wrote about Major League Eating. The organization claimed that was not the case. “For nearly two decades we have worked under the same basic hot dog exclusivity provisions,” read the statement from Major League Eating. “However, it seems that Joey and his managers have prioritized a new partnership with a different brand over our long-time relationship.” If the situation feels like a bit of a farce—such is the effect of the phrase “hot dog exclusivity provisions”—it was highly serious for those involved. The competitive eating governing body looked headed for a breakup with its biggest star. 

Chestnut, 40, is the most decorated eater to be in this situation. But he is not the first. George and Richard Shea, the brothers who run Major League Eating, have been in public contractual disputes before. (George is also the host and MC of the hot dog contest.) The first major competitive eating star, Takeru Kobayashi, was sidelined from Coney Island due to a contract disagreement in 2010. When he tried to go on stage after the competition was over, he was arrested and then banned by Major League Eating. The rivalry between Kobayashi and Chestnut had catapulted the sport to record viewership and mainstream recognition. But the ban meant it was suddenly over. A contract disagreement also spelled the end for Matt Stonie, who became the last eater to beat Chestnut at Coney Island when he won in 2015, but has not competed since 2019. (He’s continued to eat independently on YouTube.) Now, Major League Eating looks poised to lose Chestnut, too.

That still appears to be the case. Major League Eating announced its slate of competitors for Coney Island without Chestnut. For his part, Chestnut announced he will spend July 4 at a holiday celebration at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, where he’ll take part in a hot dog eating contest against four soldiers at the base. The four men combined will try to beat Chestnut alone in a five-minute contest. (The event will be streamed on Chestnut’s YouTube.) And a much bigger competition awaits at the end of the summer. Shortly after news broke that Chestnut would not be at Coney Island, Netflix announced a live special on Labor Day, pitting Chestnut against Kobayashi. It will be the pair’s first competition since 2009. 

On the morning of July 2—the day before he would typically have his final pre-hot-dog-contest weigh-in—Chestnut spoke to Sports Illustrated about his experience over the last few weeks, his new ambitions for eating and more. 

SPORTS ILLUSTRATED: Take me back to the moment you learned you weren’t going to be at Coney Island on July Fourth.

JOEY CHESTNUT: I was actually going to see my doctor. I was in the waiting room, and I got a message from a reporter from the New York Post, and it was like, “questions about your participation in the contest this year”—it was an email. Then I got a phone call from him right after, and I didn’t pick up the call, but like an hour later, there was a little article saying that somebody leaked information. It was weird—“Joey’s been banned for working with a vegan hot dog company.” It just wasn’t the way I thought things were going to go. 

SI: So you felt blindsided? This was just out there, and it wasn’t something you’d known would happen when you signed with Impossible, and it wasn’t something you’d heard about from the Shea brothers or Major League Eating?

JC: Absolutely not. Everything with Impossible was perfectly fine by all my previous agreements. They changed terms and conditions [around] exclusivity. And it’s not the first time they’ve changed some things, but it’s the first time they’ve really changed things after the fact, and I had to say, “Hey, it’s too late, I’ve already started working with this brand.” This was never an issue in the past. And they tried to dance around it—they changed a lot of terms, and then they escalated things to a degree they didn’t imagine when they started leaking information and telling people I was banned and that I turned vegan, which clearly isn’t the case.

SI: When was the last time you talked to the Shea brothers?

JC: They both sent me a little message saying, pretty much, that they’re sorry it got ugly. One of them said hopefully we can have beers in the future. But they’re not bad people, they’re just them, and that’s the way they are. I just—I didn’t expect it to go the way it did. I’m always willing to make concessions and willing to meet people in the middle. If I start something, I like to finish it, and if we started negotiating, I didn’t want to be sent away or banned. I thought we could finally get it. But it didn’t work out that way. 

SI: Do you think the door is open at all for the future? For some kind of compromise where you can be at Coney Island next July Fourth, or something else down the line, maybe? 

JC: I don’t think the Shea brothers are bad people. I’m not burning any bridges. And I love it—I love the Fourth of July and that contest. I’m always willing to try. I don’t hold grudges. So nothing is out of the question.

Competitive eater Joey Chestnut
Chestnut reacts to winning the World Burrito Eating Contest on April 6, 2023. / Mike De Sisti / Milwaukee Journal

SI: What does Coney Island mean to you? It’s been almost 20 years with you there on the Fourth of July. How did it feel to start contemplating, “Okay, I really may not be there for this one, and it’s not my choice”?

JC: It’s more than a contest. A lot of the mail or letters I get from people, it’s not saying, “Oh my God, you eat so many hot dogs, it’s amazing.” It’s, “You’ve been a part of my Fourth of July for so long.” That’s the awesome part. I get to be a part of people’s Fourth of July. I love celebrating the Fourth of July, and the fact that I help other people celebrate the Fourth of July—it’s been really, really fun. And I’m hoping I can still find ways to do that.  

SI: How did you decide what you wanted to do instead this year? Did you think about just staying home, or did you know that you wanted to do some kind of event, something where you’d still be eating hot dogs on July Fourth? 

JC: I’ve seen other eaters falling out with Major League Eating. There was the Kobayashi incident, where they wouldn’t agree to his contract demands—which was different, of course, in that he ended up being arrested that year. And then there’s my friend Matt Stonie. They were being really difficult with him on the contract, and he sat home, and he wasn’t happy. So luckily I got an opportunity here … It worked out pretty easily. I was like, alright, we’re going to celebrate the Fourth of July on an army base, and I’ll still be part of the people’s Fourth of July. That worked out really, really well, and I’m happy.

SI: And by the time this all hit, you were pretty far along in your training, right? You’d been prepping for Coney Island for weeks.

JC: Weeks, yeah. I was only three weeks away, so I was a good month, five weeks in. And I was doing really well. But it’s all right. I kept on training in case things got worked out—I still did my last practice on Friday, just because I’m crazy like that. [laughs.] But I’m going to eat at the army base, I’m going to do well, so I’m still taking it serious. If I’m going to eat in front of people on the Fourth of July, I want to go all out.

SI: How many did you eat on Friday?

JC: Well, I did a five-minute practice, but then I kept eating afterward. Because the event on the base will be a five-minute event versus four soldiers. So I did a really good five-minute practice, and then I ate a little bit more afterward, just because I wanted to see if I could change my technique a little bit. Eating for five minutes is different. [The Coney Island contest is 10 minutes.] I’m so used to trying to find a rhythm that I can carry from minutes three to nine and try to maintain that rhythm. But I think eating for five minutes—there’s a faster technique I can find. I just haven’t found it yet. I’m still hoping I can get 45 to 50 hot dogs. I think I can kick it into gear and really push it those five minutes. It’s a different rhythm, it’s more of a sprint, but I still love it.

SI: Looking beyond July Fourth—you have your showdown with Kobayashi on Labor Day. How did that come about? And how do you feel about finally getting to face him again? 

JC: It came about very slowly. I’m very excited. Like two years ago, I did an interview, and when the interviewer asked me about Kobayashi, I said, “Of course I’d love to compete against him again, and I think there’s a way we could do it without Major League Eating, so he could be involved.” It was something like that. And then a person for Netflix who had also worked on the project for our documentary knew him, and we were able to get the ball rolling very slowly, and here we are. He’s very competitive, and very serious, and I’m excited. This is the guy that drove me—we drove each other to crazy limits, and we’re going to push each other again, finally. And finally there aren’t things in the way. 

SI: I think people tend to view competitive eating as just Major League Eating—just the hot dog contest, just those events, just what they oversee. But now you’re looking at being outside of that sphere, and you can envision something like going head-to-head with Kobayashi, you can talk about doing something independent like Matt Stonie. How do you feel about the possibility of charting a different course now? 

JC: It’s exciting. When I got into this, it wasn’t my plan, necessarily—in the same way, this situation I’m in, that definitely wasn’t my plan. But I’m going to see where it takes me. And the idea of working with awesome companies, with people like Netflix, who knows where it can take us? Maybe me and Kobayashi will be eating in Japan next year. There’s just so many different things that could happen. It’s exciting. There’s definitely a change. When I was working with Major League Eating, they handled a lot of the stuff. All I had to do was show up, eat, do a little media. I got to engage with fans and eat—the best job in the world. But I think I’m still going to be able to do my favorite things. Travel, engage with fans, eat, and meet people, hopefully.

SI: Is there anything you wanted to do that was complicated under that structure that now you think you can go out and do?

JC: I always wanted to do a tour of all the baseball stadiums—you know, where I’d go to every stadium, and I’d really try all the hot dogs. I’d thrown it out to Major League Eating, but it’s one of those things that was never possible, because every baseball stadium has a different brand of hot dogs. And now that I’m not really exclusive to a brand of hot dog, I can go to every baseball stadium and rate all the hot dogs, like I’ve always wanted to do. [laughs.] What else have I not been able to do that I can now? Things like competing against Matt Stonie. Competing against Kobayashi. It took a lot of finagling and work in order to make this happen with Kobayashi—it’ll be a lot easier in the future. Things will be different. But in good ways, too.

SI: Does it feel like freedom? Or does it feel scary?

JC: I don’t know. I definitely wouldn’t say scary. It’s exciting. A little uncertainty is exciting. And without sounding cocky—I’m still confident. I’m confident in my ability. I know what I’m capable of. And as much as it hurts not to be at the Fourth of July, I have other things I’m focusing on. I can’t be down on myself, because—no. I’m going to Fort Bliss. I’m getting ready for the event with Kobayashi. He’s not down about anything, he’s probably excited that I’m not competing, he’s probably amped up. He’s going to use this as fuel. And I’m going to, too, as soon as I can. I’m going to start focusing on that Netflix event and make sure I dominate that contest. 

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Emma Baccellieri


Emma Baccellieri is a staff writer who focuses on baseball and women's sports for Sports Illustrated. She previously wrote for Baseball Prospectus and Deadspin, and has appeared on BBC News, PBS NewsHour and MLB Network. Baccellieri has been honored with multiple awards from the Society of American Baseball Research, including the SABR Analytics Conference Research Award in historical analysis (2022), McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award (2020) and SABR Analytics Conference Research Award in contemporary commentary (2018). A graduate from Duke University, she’s also a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America.