The fact is that no one truly knows how and when the Nathan’s Hot Dog eating contest truly began. The myth most tend to believe was that in 1916, immigrants decided that the best way to prove their patriotism was with a hot dog eating contest at the original Nathan’s Hot Dog stand right off the boardwalk in Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York.
That story has been debunked. The creator of the legend is Mortimer “Morty” Matz, who worked as a promoter for Nathans’s Hot Dogs. He said the tale was created as a publicity stunt in the 1970s, right when the contest started to become legitimate. However, the legend grew so large that many people believed it to be true, and still do, with no actual facts to back it up. The first official and recorded Nathan’s Hot Dog eating contest happened in 1972, with two contests, one on Memorial Day and another on Labor Day.
Still, the connection to the original Nathan’s Hot Dog stands in Coney Island remains the same, where the eating contest is held annually. The patriotic element also remains, with outside of 1972, 1975, and 1978, there has been a Nathan’s Hot Dog eating contest on July 4, The United States’ Independence Day, if the contest was held at all.
The contests started to gain more regular news coverage and attendance in the late 1980s when there started to be repeat competitors and winners. Jay Green was the first person to win the competition three times, winning from 1988 to 1990. He was followed by Frankie Dellarosa, Mike DeVito, and Ed Krachie, who all won multiple contests till 1996.
From 1997 to 2006, the contest was dominated by Japanese eaters, who won 9 of the 10 contests held during that time frame. The first to win was Hirofumi Nakajima, who won in 1997 and 1998, and Kazutoyo Arai in 2000. Then came along Takeru Kobayashi, who went on to win the next six straight contests, shattering hot dog eating competition world records. In 2001, the previous world record was 25.5 hot dogs, and Kobayashi ate 50 in his first victory.
Joey Chestnut arrived in 2007, winning the first of his 14 competitions, eating 66 hot dogs for the world record, beating out Kobayashi, who ate 63, which would have been the world record if it wasn’t for Chestnut. The year 2008 featured arguably one of the most exciting Nathan’s hot dog eating competitions, as Chestnut and Kobayashi battled it out, tying with at 59, forcing a five hot dog eat-off that Chestnut won. That year was when the time of the competition changed from 12 minutes to 10 minutes.
In 2011 the contest was separated into men’s and women’s competitions after the men and women had competed together throughout the competition’s history. Sonya Thomas became the first women’s champion, winning three consecutively until Miki Sudo beat her. Sudo has won every contest she has competed in since 2014, not competing in 2021 because she was pregnant, allowing Michelle Lesco to be the third winner. Sudo set the women’s world record in 2020 at 48.5 hot dogs.
Chestnut has had a stranglehold on the competition since winning in 2007, only losing once in 2015 to Matt Stonie by two hot dogs. The following year, Chestnut returned and won, setting the record, eating 70 hot dogs. Since, Chestnut has been competing against himself basically, resetting the record five times in the last six years, which is now up to 76 hot dogs.