Joey Chestnut had barely begun celebrating his fourth consecutive Nathan's hot dog eating championship last July 4th when the commotion broke out.
Takeru Kobayashi, the man who put competitive eating on the map, was rushing the stage. After refusing to sign a contract with Major League Eating, he was banned from the event, but that didn't stop him from getting his name in the headlines. As a result of the outburst, Kobayashi was charged with trespassing and resisting arrest.
"It is unfortunate that he had to pull a stunt like last year," says Renee Herlocker, who will serve as the ESPN sideline reporter for Monday's hot dog eating contest.
Still without an MLE contract, Kobayashi will not be part of the field at Coney Island in Brooklyn this year. He will be eating hot dogs, though. The six-time winner will compete on his own from the rooftop of a Manhattan restaurant, flanked by large-screen TVs showing the ESPN telecast of the event, which starts at noon ET.
Despite the act of defiance, Kobayashi is receiving support from many around the competitive eating world.
"I believe this year's (event) is just him trying to still make waves in the competitive eating world," Herlocker says. "He is such a great eater, and like I said, it is unfortunate that he can't compete alongside Joey. Watching the two of them is special."
Pat "Deep Dish" Bertoletti, the No. 2 ranked eater in the world, says the absence of Kobayashi casts a shadow on the contest, which pays $20,000 each to the top male and female contestant.
"It's kind of a shame that he's not in the Nathan's event because he built competitive eating," Bertoletti says. "Without Kobayashi there would never be a Major League Eating. Kobayashi's arrival in 2001 was certainly the tipping point of competitive eating. I don't think it's much of an event without him. He's the only eater that's ever challenged Joey. It means I need to step up and challenge him this year.”
The absence of Kobayashi doesn't mean that the 10 minutes of hot dog gorging won't be exciting. Herlocker says she'll take fans right into the heart of the action. She will be reporting from the "Splash Zone" mere steps from the contestants. It will require a poncho and a strong stomach of her own.
"I think it will be disgustingly awesome!" she says.
Herlocker has been a fan of the contest since 2007, the last year that the time limit was 12 minutes, when Chestnut went head to head against Kobayashi with the American prevailing. Chestnut broke Kobayashi's record of 54 by downing 66.
In 2008, the first year with the 10-minute time limit, Chestnut and Kobayashi each finished 59. Chestnut then won the first-to-five-dogs eatoff to retain his title. In 2009, Chestnut beat Kobayashi 68-64.5. Without Kobayashi to push him, Chestnut won last year with 54.
Herlocker got her first taste of competitive eating up close when she served as sideline reporter for a Pizza Hut P'Zone duel between Chestnut and Sonya "Black Widow" Thomas recently.
Interestingly enough, Herlocker hasn't had a hot dog since she became vegetarian two years ago. Still she couldn't be more excited to be a part of such a summer tradition. And Kobayashi or not, she believes fans will be in for a great time.
"The entertainment value of the sport is priceless," she says. "And I think, 'what better way to celebrate our country's independence other than watching grown men and women stuff their faces for the pride of winning the yellow mustard belt!'"
-- Follow Renee Herlocker on Twitter @reneeherlocker.