PALM BEACH GARDENS, FL (WFLX) - The women and children in the first row beyond the stage received fair warning: They were standing in the "splash zone".
Once TooJay's corned beef sandwich-eating competition began on Saint Patrick's Day at Downtown at the Gardens, there was a good shot they'd get hit with meat shrapnel and whatever drinks that contestants used to slam down as many sandwiches as they could in 10 minutes.
The defending champion, Joey "Jaws" Chestnut, asked for a second to line up pints of water next to his first plateful of half-pound sandwiches. Next to him, another contestant, Pat "Deep Dish" Bertoletti, unbuckled his belt.
A crowd of more than 200 people cheered. Music blared. Richard Shea, the president of Major League Eating, who presides over these events like Vince McMahon over professional wrestling, said "Go!"
And the lovely sandwiches became meat slag. Behold competitive eating.
Ten minutes later, Chestnut had won again, this time eating 14 1/2 sandwiches, two more than Bertoletti, but one less than his record last year. And for the effort, he won $12,500 of an overall $20,000 purse.
It's not a pretty sight. Chestnut doesn't eat the food so much as he attacks it. With his fists against his mouth, he squeezes and pounds the sandwiches into his throat.
Next to him, Bertoletti washes down the sandwiches with pint after pint of fruit punch until his mouth and cheeks look blood-stained. Beside them, sinewy thin Juliet Lee uses two delicate fingers to stuff sandwich meat into her mouth, which is so distended it looks as if she's trying to swallow a softball.
"Oh, it's not graceful. There's nothing graceful about it," said Chestnut, 25. "It's all mechanical — how quickly can you get the food in."
When the ravaging ends, the stage floor looks like the ground around a Dumpster. But the crowd cheers Chestnut's name.
Doing this year-round for the past six years, Chestnut makes better money than his bosses at the construction company where he works in San Diego.
"I'm a little bit upset I didn't eat more," he said. "I got lazy, I think."
Offstage, fans and professional autograph hunters line up to get Chestnut's picture and signature. He is sweating so profusely that his short hair looks gelled. The meat sweats, they call it.
Chestnut signs his name to jerseys and poses.
"Who would've thought?" Chestnut says.
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