Consuming Their Way for Shot at Top Dog

Times Staff Writer

A dozen competitors faced cheering friends and crowding fans along Pico Boulevard on Sunday as they attempted to concentrate on the gluttonous feat at hand -- to eat as many hot dogs as possible in 12 minutes.

Most were newcomers looking for a fun challenge and with a hankering for a free lunch. A few were regulars of the competitive eating circuit who, win or lose, return year after year for the face-off.

And two participants were downright dog-eating die-hards who believed they could win the Los Angeles qualifying round. For the last two years, the winner of the Mustard Yellow International Belt has been a Japanese competitor, Takeru Kobayashi.


Los Angeles is one of 13 heartburn-inducing stops for the hot-dog eating world championship.

This year’s Los Angeles champ, “Bayou” Boyd Bulot, went frank-for-frank during the 12-minute event against Ray “The Bison” Meduna.

Meduna, 40, of Mount Vernon, Wash., is a relatively small competitor at 6 feet, 3 inches and 230 pounds. He recently lost an Arizona event by downing only 13 hot dogs and has yet to fulfill a 25-year dream of competing in the international finals, held each Fourth of July at Coney Island in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Bulot, of Hammond, La., a newcomer to competitive eating, began competing in eating events three years ago as a joke. Now he’s the world oyster-eating champion.

On a sidewalk in front of Nathan’s Famous on Pico, contestants stood at a table stocked with hot dogs, five to a paper plate, and a choice of condiments -- bottles of mustard and Styrofoam bowls of ketchup and mayonnaise.

But the serious eaters, such as Bulot and Meduna, took their hot dogs straight. Just the franks and buns, dipped in water to make them go down easier.

After 12 minutes, judges decided the race was too close to call: Bulot eating half of his 17th hot dog and bun and Meduna eating his 17th dog without the bun. According to official rules of the International Federation of Competitive Eating, both hot dog and bun must be consumed to count.

In the last seconds of a one-minute overtime eat-off, Bulot shoved a second hot dog and bun into his mouth, while Meduna tried to stuff in the rest of a second bun.

“You own it, baby,” friends coached from the crowd. “Swallow!”

Bulot, swallowing first, was declared the winner. The 6-foot-5-inch, 340 pounder threw up his hands in victory.

“I feel nice,” he sang. “I feel good, I knew that I would!”

Last year’s Los Angeles champ, J. Cobe, trailed Sunday by a full five hot dogs.

Now, Bulot must muster up the digestive fortitude to take on American favorite and the No. 2 competitive eater, Eric “Badlands” Booker of Long Island, N.Y., in the July 4 finals. Booker, a 34-year-old subway conductor, already qualified by winning at the Belmont Racetrack event in New York. He beat his personal best of 28 hot dogs and buns by two and says he’s focused on bringing home the ample championship belt.

“I just keep it in my mind that I have a job to do,” Booker said in a telephone interview while he awaited an appearance on Carson Daly’s “Last Call” TV show.

When Booker, who weighs 410 pounds, first encountered the 5-foot-6, 132-pound Kobayashi two years ago, he didn’t take the Japanese hot-dog king seriously.

“No one knew what he was capable of. There were rumors that he ate 30, but I said ... no one can eat that many.”

Since then Kobayashi has left all the competition behind, shocking fans by eating as many as 50 hot dogs.

To prepare, Booker has been working out. In this case, building his stomach capacity by eating pounds of cabbage and drinking water. Lots of water. He’s down to one gallon in one minute. He’s been studying too.

“I would sit down with three hot dogs -- and some people may think I’m crazy, but I don’t care -- and I’d look at the hot dogs and think, ‘What’s the best way I can eat you?’ ”

Although Booker takes winning seriously, some such as Cobe, the former L.A. champ, do not.

“I can’t take it serious,” Cobe has said. “This is a completely ridiculous endeavor.”

Rich and George Shea, the founders of the competitive-eating federation, don’t agree. They’ve tried to get hot-dog eating (and other eating events) into the Olympics. They believe the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, will be the debut.

“Eating is as fundamental to us as running and jumping are to other sports,” said Rich Shea.