The most fearsome competitive eater in the world stands only
5'8". He weighs 135 pounds. His waist is 30 inches. You look at
him and you think, I spot this guy a pork shank and I still beat
him. Yet this polite waif has made giant men bury their faces in
their napkins in agony, struck terror in the stomachs of sumo
wrestlers and given all-you-can-eat noodle-shop owners facial
tics.

He is Hirofumi Nakajima, of Kofu, Japan, and he's coming to
Coney Island on July 4th to defend his title in the 83rd annual
Nathan's Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest. Please,
keep pets and small children away.

Winning again won't be easy. He will have to beat a man who can
eat 150 jalapeno peppers at one sitting. The world haggis-eating
champ will be there. So will the American pickle-eating
champion. One beast goes 6'7" and 360. None of them can carry
Nakajima's fork.

Last year, he ate 24 1/2 hot dogs (and buns) in 12 minutes, or
enough to kill Babe Ruth three times over. He has put away 50
sushi in one minute; 14 bowls of soba in 30 minutes; more than
six and a half pounds of sweet potatoes in half an hour. But he
is not merely a speed-eater. He is a classic distance eater as
well. He inhaled 15 bowls of noodle soup, 100 pieces of sushi,
five plates of wheat noodles, five plates of beef over rice, and
five plates of curry over rice in a single lunch. Plus the mint.
Another time he slurped down 58 bowls of rice-cake soup in a
sitting. There is nobody the dreaded Black Hole of Kofu can't
outeat.

"Excuse me," he says, bowing apologetically. "But this is not
true. I lost once."

You did?

"Yes. To an elephant."

O.K., there is no human the dreaded Black Hole of Kofu can't
outeat, unless maybe you're counting Gilbert Brown. Men travel
days just to quiver at the terrible things he can do to a menu.
Shopkeepers see him coming down the street and immediately start
hand-cranking down the steel shutters.

You look at him, this 23-year-old man, not even filling out his
shirt, born without benefit of a butt, his belt notched lightly
at the first hole, and immediately you think, Two Happy Meals,
he's done. When Nakajima humiliated the 360-pounder, former
champ Ed (the Animal) Krachie of Queens, New York, at last
year's Nathan's Famous contest, Krachie was reduced to crumbs.
"I'm dumbfounded on how someone that small can do it," Krachie
declared.

"It is a secret," Nakajima says of his gift. "If I told you, you
might beat me." The mind shudders. What could it be? Japanese
microtechnology? He is a black belt in judo. Maybe it's a Zen
thing. "Concentration, yes, is most important," he says.

Maybe it's his training. Before a contest, he will eat a lunch
of 10 to 12 bowls of ramen every day for two weeks--yet he
can't put on weight. There were rumors that he had a surgically
installed superstomach, until he was examined on the steps of
New York's City Hall. "It is only that I hate to lose,"
Nakajima says.

We couldn't resist. We bought him a Jethro Bodine-sized bowl of
ramen and asked for just a glimpse of his greatness. We handed
him some chopsticks. We took a step back. As he broke them apart
and began feeling their weight in his hands, a tingle came over
us. This was Ted Williams with the pine tar, Horowitz warming up
on scales, a Kennedy fingering the drink list.

Suddenly, he summoned a huge glob of noodles to his over-sized
maw and Hoovered them down with sickening speed, as though
something horrible deep inside him were pulling furiously at the
noodles, hand over fist. There was no chewing. There was no
swallowing. The noodles were just gone. The bowl was empty in 30
seconds. He dabbed at a small droplet on his chin, smiled and
bowed slightly in apology. If you want just a quick bite for
lunch, Nakajima-san is your man.

Me, I'd bet the kitchen that on the Fourth somebody at Coney
Island will be placing a mustard-yellow belt around the waist of
the Black Hole of Kofu.

If I were the presenter, I would take off my rings and jewelry
first.

COLOR PHOTO: NANCIE BATTAGLIA Food for thought from Rick Reilly: How can 135-pound Hirofumi Nakajima be world hot-dog-eating champ? (page 88) [Hirofumi Nakajima eating bowl of ramen noodles--T of C] B/W PHOTO: ROBERT BECK [Rick Reilly]

He ate 24 1/2 hot dogs in 12 minutes, or enough to kill Babe
Ruth three times over.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)