You could see it in their faces: Mouths gaping around green gobs. Barely-choked-down gulps of leaves and water. Wincing eyes.
But when Gideon "The Truth" Oji, now the two-time champion of the Kale Yeah! professional eating competition, grabbed his kale-filled trophy and took a bite for the crowd, it was in celebration, not struggle.
Oji and eight other top-ranked eaters took the stage at the Erie County Fair on Sunday afternoon for the second year of the competition, which is billed as the healthiest in the world. The challenge? Eat as many 16-ounce cups of raw, chopped kale as possible in eight minutes.
Sanctioned by Major League Eating, the body that governs all pro eating contests, the competition brought out famed talents like Joey "Jaws" Chestnut — the top-ranked eater in the world and nine-time winner of Nathan's Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest — alongside Oji, who is ranked sixth, second-ranked Carmen Cincotti, fourth-ranked Geoffrey Esper and eighth-ranked Darron Breeden.
"For me, to come down here and beat them, it feels good," Oji said after the showdown.
Oji finished with 22.5 bowls down the hatch, Chestnut behind him with 20. Oji set the world record last year with 25.5 bowls.
"We eat a lot of vegetables where I'm from, so I'm a natural at that," he said.
The 25-year-old came to the United States from Nigeria in 2008. He played college basketball in Georgia before becoming a competitive eater.
"I don't get tired of it," he said of kale. "It's a natural bitter taste."
The event, a ravenous display complete with a carnival-barker emcee, was also meant to encourage healthy eating.
“While Buffalo has earned national recognition as birthplace of the chicken wing and other food favorites, we are now leading the way by promoting healthy options through this unique healthy eating event," said Carrie Meyer, director of the Independent Health Foundation, sponsor of the event, in a press release.
The eaters were competing for the title and a $2,000 grand prize.
For Chestnut, who throughout the eight minutes looked like he was about to gag, the food Sunday was much different from the usual fare.
"I've had cooked kale with bacon on it but never raw kale," he said.
Chestnut was in Binghamton on Saturday for a chicken sandwich eating contest, and since he usually bulks up on salad after a bout like that, he figured he'd join the fairground competition.
"The right winner walked away with the title," he said, "and I'm going to come back next year and demolish it."
Oji said he'll be back to break his own record, too. But Sunday afternoon, with bits of kale still clinging to his face, it was time for some meat.