NEW YORK – It's 90 degrees in late June and Takeru Kobayashi is sitting at a small hot dog restaurant in the East Village. He's here with Maggie James, his longtime manager, translator and friend. In the three years since he's appeared at Nathan's Famous hot dog eating contest, the ill will and bad feelings since the fallout have only intensified for Kobayashi.
"It's very difficult for me to think of Coney Island or Nathan's right now," he says in an interview translated by James. "I don't think I'll ever go back."
It was a decade ago, then in his early 20s, when Kobayashi came here from Japan and, in his Coney Island debut, ate 50 hot dogs and buns, wowing the crowd and ushering in a new phenomenon (second place logged a measly 26). Kobayashi helped grow Nathan's into an event that is now telecast nationally and draws thousands to the Coney Island boardwalk each year.
Yet 10 years, several contract disputes and even an arrest later, Kobayashi is now on his own, ringing in the summer holiday this week at a pizzeria in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, hosting his own hot dog eating contest far away from the glitz and tradition of Nathan's.
"We wish him luck," says George Shea, chairman of Major League Eating (MLE).
The rift between MLE and its first star has long been documented, yet in the nearly three years in which they've been divorced, the bitterness, frustration and disagreement over what happened during those contentious contract negotiations in 2010 have only increased, at least in Kobayashi's eyes.
The misinformation has left Kobayashi and his team so frustrated that in the last week he has spoken out and in more detail than his reserved nature normally allows. First, it was to publicly tell a blog that he was still owed money from MLE –- a contention Shea strongly disputes –- then in an interview with SB Nation, to discuss the details of that contract for the first time.
The reason why?
"I want people to know the truth," Kobayashi says.
He feels that, as the premiere competitive eater in the world, it's in part his responsibility to right the wrongs of the league. In particular, he feels that because the league negotiates with the athletes at will -– with no protection afforded to them -– the athletes lose any rights to endorse or engage in anything outside of what MLE mandates.
"My belief is that the organization that produces the event cannot be the same agency that also owns the athletes," he says. "My belief is that there should be a body governing the contest... that each eater should belong to their own agent or their own agencies. The same organizing people cannot be the same body organizing the eaters."
It is a matter of principle, one in which he firmly believes. MLE, of course, is allowed to prohibit its athletes from appearing at a competitors' event, or endorsing a competitive product, but Kobayashi's bottom line is that he feels he's fighting for the future of the athletes -– and himself -– to create a free market.
"I understand he wants to be the freedom fighter," Shea says, "but because of that the league will always appear to be the bad guy."
Shea contends that they offered Kobayashi a contract of over $100,000 that would cover four events in 2010, and that, win or lose at Nathan's, Kobayashi would walk away with a guaranteed $25,000, in essence a flat appearance fee. Any prize monies awarded by the holder of the event would be recouped by MLE.
Kobayashi, wanting more freedom, asked that he only be offered a contract for Nathan's contest, and forgo the other three events they had written into his contract. MLE countered with $40,000 for both the July 2010 and July 2011 contests at Nathan's, and mandated he could not compete in any other competitive eating event for that year in the U.S. and Canada. He also could not endorse anything other than what MLE mandated, the lone language mentioning a Pepto Bismal endorsement for $10,000.
Living off $40,000 with no other means of income was not enough for Kobayashi, and he felt it unfair. He could have been paid a flat six-figure fee, but on principle he declined. MLE's counter, he felt, was unfair, and restrictive. Therefore, the impasse has remained.
"He wanted to be assured the prize money irrespective of whether he won," Shea said. "He went out and chose to make it out on his own. I would suggest he has probably left hundreds of thousands of dollars on the table, but that is not his goal. He's said his goal is to be able to do what he wants."
The details are cumbersome and there likely will never be an agreement between both sides. What remains is that Kobayashi is still on his own, navigating a niche industry, performing a freak event, and having to live in his head, many times alone, in his Manhattan apartment. Often, people forget he is human, and instead they view him through a carnival-esque prism that aligns with his chosen profession. As Maggie translated one of his answers, tears welled in her eyes.
"If I were just a friend and not a manager, I would actually put our friendship on the line by saying everything myself," she says. "My frustration is the fans he's lost along the way who actually don't know anything about the truth and [are] being misled. And by not having the correct information, they view him as a whiner or someone who's just trying to get money, when actually he is neither."
Says Kobayashi: "I've been watching Maggie fight along the way with me the entire time; I guess it frustrates me I don't have the power to fix it myself. I feel very desperate to try to stay afloat."
While Kobayashi is proud of what he says is standing up against the sanctioning body, there has been collateral damage. He and James both say he's lost fans, and then there is vitriol on message boards, people calling him selfish, greedy, delusional. The toll has been real.
"People want to say things like 'oh he's past his peak' or 'he's doing this because he's afraid of losing.'" he says. "All kinds of things they would like to base their opinions on. For me, as a human being, it's frustrating. So I have to think about daily, to be focused, how to go forward, that I'm still fit, and I'm still the greatest at what I can do. And how I can show that and (on) what stage that can be."
That stage this year is in Brooklyn. Just as he did last year in Manhattan, he is on his own, hosting his own July 4th contest. He ate 69 hot dogs, besting his rival, Joey Chestnut, who downed 62 in front of the huge crowds and national TV cameras on Coney Island. Chestnut and MLE consider Coney Island the official record. Such are the perils when you are out on your own.
When asked who the champion is, Kobayashi pauses, and nods his head.
"Me," he says. "Of course."
Of course. On Wednesday, he's got another chance to prove that he's right.