While Americans across the country head out to the pool, fire up the grill and take down a (mostly) reasonable amount of food on the Fourth of July, Joey "Jaws" Chestnut will look to go where no competitive eater has gone before him.

Seventh Heaven.

Chestnut, the star competitive eater from San Jose, is the heavy favorite to win his seventh consecutive Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest on Thursday, as his top rival Takeru Kobayashi continues his contract standoff with Major League Eating.

The 29-year-old Chestnut has dominated the competition since 2007, when he pulled the upset and ended Kobayashi's run of six straight titles. Chestnut beat Kobayashi in overtime in 2008 and by 3 1/2 hot dogs in 2009.

Then Kobayashi walked.

In 2010, Kobayashi refused to sign a contract with Major League Eating, the organization that runs the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest and many similar events, and he famously showed up at the event to protest.

As one can imagine, competitive eating isn't the most lucrative sport, and athletes often sign endorsements to boost their income. Major League Eating wants a cut of any endorsement signed by one of its competitors, and Kobayashi thought that was too much to ask.

By refusing to sign, Kobayashi has since been banned from competing in MLE events, and his photo has even been removed from Nathan's three-story high "Wall of Fame." These developments have seriously damaged Kobayashi's celebrity and legend. Imagine if LeBron James couldn't compete in the NBA.

As Adam Felder writes in The Atlantic, MLE and Kobayashi would both benefit from giving in to the others' demands. The Nathan's contest figures to be more competitive with Kobayashi involved, as no other eater has been able to give Chestnut as much of a challenge. And Kobayashi would have the exposure of being on center stage for the sport's most visible event.

But Kobayashi has signed on with Hofmann's, a hot dog company based in upstate New York, so his return to MLE in the short term seems unlikely. The deal with Hoffmann's will give Kobayashi an annual salary $100,000, 2 percent of supermarket sales on hot dogs and an undisclosed stake in a planned restaurant chain, according to a BuzzFeed report.

For the past two years, Kobayashi has taken part in separate hot dog eating contests or exhibitions on July 4. In 2011 he downed an (unofficial) world record 69 wieners, and last year he ate 58.5.

On Thursday, Kobayashi will be scarfing down dogs at the Eventi Hotel Plaza in Manhattan. Afterwards, he will unveil his own line of grain-fed franks, the "Kobi Dog."

The Coney Island contest loses some of its luster without Kobayashi, but Chestnut has become a legend in his own right.

“If you polled all New Yorkers, their top five sports heroes would be, in order, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Joey, Joe Namath and Walt Frazier,” Richard Shea, the president of Major League Eating, told the New York Daily News.

Past runners-up Tim "Eater X" Janus and Patrick "Deep Dish" Bertoletti are expected to eat Thursday but Chestnut is mostly competing against himself. The world record that Chestnut is gunning for is 68 hot dogs, a mark he set twice (2009, 2012), and the over/under for how many dogs he'll down is 63.5.

And Chestnut doesn't plan on stopping anytime soon. He told Gersh Kuntzman of the New York Daily News that he has his eyes set on ten Nathan's titles. Ambitious, sure, but not entirely out of the question. Chestnut is now a full-time competitive eater, traveling the world and pocketing some serious dough all thanks to his durable stomach.

While that lifestyle may sound, well, unappetizing, to some, Chestnut loves it.

"There's no better feeling than knowing I’m going to break the guy next to me," Chestnut told the New York Daily News. "His body will shut down and I will keep eating. Then I will look out and see a crowd of happy people."

In the women's competition, two-time champion Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas is widely expected to make her run a three-peat. Her winning total was 40 last year and 41 in 2011, the first year with a separate women's competition.

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