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They line up across the stage: kings of consumption, sultans of scarf. A half-dozen cameras hover around them, zooming in on waistlines and jaw lines and a few anxious, ticking fingers. In another setting, they might be freakish outcasts, but here they're revered professional athletes ready for action.
Pumping through the speakers comes the first few beats of Eminem's battle anthem "Lose Yourself." A throng of curious spectators looks on from the metal bleachers. Onstage, a thin man in a barbershop-quartet-style straw hat, a red-striped tie, and a blue shirt drenched in sweat barks into a microphone.
"They say competitive eating is the battleground upon which God and Lucifer wage war for men's souls, my friends!" announcer and judge Mike Antolini proclaims with the gusto of a revivalist preacher. "And they are right! What we have today is a battle for the ages! A battle of the titans!"
At its core, this is a simple contest of biologic function. But the World Pickle Eating Championship — held this year at the Isle Casino in Pompano Beach — is something much more. Taking place beneath a small white tent on a 90-degree Sunday morning in September, this is a pageant of the hilarious and the horrific. It's sanctioned by Major League Eating, competitive eating's governing body, and with $5,000 at stake, the six-minute, vinegar-soaked battle is part athletic endeavor, part anachronistic entertainment. And it epitomizes the modern competitive-eating circuit, nicknamed the "fastest growing sport in America."
The event draws some of the finest "gurgitators" on the planet. The 285-pound bear of a man at the center of the table, that's Bob "Notorious B-O-B" Shoudt, an IT guy from Philadelphia who once ate nearly 14 pounds of Skyline chili spaghetti in ten minutes. He set a world record by gulping 36 peanut butter and banana sandwiches in a row. At an event last year, he chugged 23.4 pounds of salmon chowder in six minutes. "That guy can swallow a Krystal hamburger like a little pill," one of the other competitors whispers. Notorious B-O-B, a vegetarian when he's not competing, once downed 39 of the miniature burgers in two minutes.
Next to him, with his sleeves rolled up, his headphones blasting, and his hair spiked into a tall Mohawk, that's 25-year-old Chicagoan Patrick "Deep Dish" Bertoletti. He once knocked back nearly 11 pounds of key lime pie in eight minutes. He has slurped down 21 pounds of grits in a single sitting. In May, Deep Dish set a record when he ate 275 pickled jalapeño peppers in ten minutes. He also works as a chef at a catering company.
The five-foot-tall, 105-pound Korean woman with her shoes off and her jeans rolled up, that's Sonya Thomas. They call her "the Black Widow." Nothing short of a total ingestion legend, she holds records for sausages, baked beans, catfish, cheese steaks, chili cheese fries, chicken nuggets, and oysters. She can swallow an entire hot dog whole. "Yes, fellas, she's single!" announcers usually tell the crowds after she's introduced.
The athletic, clean-cut young man wearing Florida Gator colors, that's Hall "Hoover" Hunt from Jacksonville, the only faith-based pro on the competitive-eating circuit. Beneath his eyes, he has blue strips of paint with a Bible verse written in white: 1 Corinthians 10:31 ("So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God"). After nearly a year away from the tour, Hoover, a jaw-strength specialist, chose the pickle championship to make his return.
To Hoover's right, wide-eyed and grinning, is Sean "Wrecking Ball" Brockert, the up-and-coming crowd favorite from Palm Beach Gardens. Wearing a backward black ball cap and a two-day beard, Wrecking Ball invited family, friends, and former co-workers to root him on as he battles the master masticators. There's a cheering section of about ten people, many wearing matching black "Wrecking Ball" T-shirts.
When the announcer introduces him, someone in the crowd calls out "Go Wrecking Ball!" and there's applause.
Wrecking Ball, a 29-year-old Army veteran now attending community college, has a dream. He's been doing this for only six months, but winning the pickle contest would be the perfect way to show Major League Eating officials he can compete with the best, to prove he's worthy of event invitations, appearance fees, sponsorship, and ultimately a higher ranking with the International Federation of Competitive Eating. "Right now, I'm number 37 in the world," he says sheepishly.
Before the countdown to gorging time, competitors have the chance to fill tall plastic cups with whatever liquid they think will help the pickles go down. The Black Widow uses water. Hoover uses a red energy drink. "Dehydration will definitely be the biggest issue," he had postulated earlier in the morning. "With all that salt, your throat can close right up." Deep Dish fills his cups from two thermoses of heated, sugar-free Kool-Aid.
Across the table in front of the competitors are at least 200 chilled, full sour Kosher dill pickles sitting in wooden bowls, one pound — five or six pickles — per bowl. The air in a ten-foot radius is pungent with the sharp aroma of vinegar.
The participants ready themselves for battle. The Black Widow stretches her neck. Deep Dish sets the final playlist on his iPod — he's listening to Dillenger Four, a punk band from Minnesota. Notorious B-O-B pours the last few cups of his raspberry drink. Hoover blows his nose in a tissue and says a quick prayer.