In the end, it came down to just 11 chicken wings.
Joey Chestnut, the 32-year-old renowned competitive food eating champion from San Jose, Calif., ate his way through 188 wings to edge out Nigerian-born Gideon Oji to win the U.S. Chicken Wing Eating Championship for the third consecutive year.
Though not quite the case, one might say it more or less “came down to the last swallow,” as moderator George C. Shea told the crowd, which was crazy with enthusiasm for the event that featured 11 contestants, two of them women.
It was a close one for certain – and a competition laced with its share of heartburn, speed and thrills based on how many wings each competitor could eat in 12 minutes. When it finally ended, organizers weighed the trays left with the scraps from the competitors.
Shortly after consuming the equivalent of 5.88 pounds of wings in the late afternoon heat, Chestnut acknowledged he was nervous, but also credited himself with an “awesome technique.”
“I like getting done with the contest and finding out where I placed,” he said, noting that the Buffalo Wing Festival is one of his favorites. “I got the second tray of wings, and then was able to take off ... I kept the food going down, and if not, I drank more.”
The wing-eating championship is the signature event at the two-day National Buffalo Chicken Wing Festival at Coca-Cola Field.
In all, founder Drew Cerza, who wore an oversized wing-shaped hat and wore a red robe with “Wing King” lettering on its back, said the festival drew about 70,000 people for its 15th run.
“It was probably our most exciting one yet. There was a new energy, with new activities, like a new rebirth,” he said.
Aside from a shining trophy, Chestnut walked away with $2,500 as the victor.
Chomping down 177 wings, or 5.54 pounds, Oji was a close second in the world of speed eating. Chestnut knew it and so did Cerza.
“Gideon is the athlete. He gave him a run for his money,” Cerza said.
Chestnut – who just moments after winning told reporters he still had room left to eat – acknowledged that his victory was tight. Even so, his win yielded throngs of fans who rushed to him for his autograph and wildly snapped pictures of themselves posing with Chestnut afterward.
“That win by 11 wings is a little closer than I like, but I’m glad I got it done,” he said, noting that he drank only liquids all day leading up to the contest. “This is one of the contests I really look forward to coming to.”
Chestnut’s advice for would-be wing-eating contestants is rather simple. “You have to love to eat, and love to win” and figure out how to make it work for your body, he said.
The tall, slender Oji was proud of his close second, and stood on one side of Cerza as Chestnut was announced as the winner.
Another great eating champion, the 100-pound Sonya Thomas of Alexandria, Va., who is known as “The Black Widow,” earned fifth place. She and Chestnut were clearly the favorites of the crowd, which often yelled “Go hard” to them and chanted their names.
But after the contest ended and before the wing trays were weighed, Thomas said she knew she hadn’t done well.
Third place went to Geoffrey Esper of Oxford, Mass., and Yasir Salem earned fourth place.
“I was a little slow toward the end. I was getting tired,” Esper said.
Still, moderator Shea said he had not seen a contest “that close and furious” in some time.
Before the contest began, seriousness set in. Many competitors carefully positioned their water bottles, loosening the twist caps. Some even rearranged the wings in their aluminum-covered trays.
The contest was something to watch – with beads of perspiration flying everywhere and many contestants using one of their hands to keep stuffing the meat into their mouths as they reached for yet another wing, periodically washing them down with a swig from their water bottles.
Earlier in the day, some young competitors got their moment on stage during the Baby Wing Contest.
That contest was open to boys and girls up to 4 years old. No messy eating here – they just had to dress in costumes with a Buffalo theme.
Eleven children from seven families tried to win over the judges in what contest co-host Melissa Holmes of WGRZ-TV billed as a competition of “ultimate cuteness.”
The three Sparling children of Cheektowaga claimed victory, to the delight of their parents, Mark and Tina.
Savannah, 2½ years old, dressed as the Wing Queen, complete with a crown and robe. Nine-month-old Joseph was blue cheese, and his twin sister, Helena, was a chicken wing. Mark Sparling has worked for Bocce Pizza for 16 years, so they were festival regulars already.
The Sparlings were ready to enter Savannah last year, but Tina was pregnant with the twins, and it was too hot, so they took a pass. In the meantime, they perfected Joseph’s blue cheese outfit, with the creative use of a lamp shade to hold the fabric in place.
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