CLEARWATER — Here at the birthplace of sex and chicken wings, there was a contest. A pornography of poultry. A quest for gastric elasticity, buffalo style.
Bowls and water bottles lined the stage at the Hooters World Wing-Eating Championship at the Original Hooters. Fans donned giant foam wing hats and swilled Bud Lights served by Hooters girls with chests propped skyward. In America, land of wiggling stomachs on the evening news, someone would take pride in eating more than their fill.
Twelve competitors appeared through a cloud of dry ice, but all eyes were on two.
Joey Chestnut and Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas. On July 4, they'd both captured titles in the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest. They were two of the most famous competitive eaters in the world.
Chestnut came first.
"He will never kneel," said announcer George Shea. "He will stand always and cast you in his shadow because the rock on which he stands is not a rock. It is the United States of America."
Chestnut looked cautious. He'd pounded 68 hot dogs in ten minutes on Independence Day, but wings were a nit in his hair. He'd lost his last three wing contests. Wings have bones and sauce and spice. Every wing is different.
Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas, was a chicken wing master. This sliver of a woman born in Korea defied logic and understanding. She weighed less than 100 pounds. At a 2011 contest in Buffalo, she ate 183 wings in 12 minutes.
She beat Chestnut. Twice.
"The one who is pure evil," said Shea. "The one who eats with a cloven tongue... The one who is gold and dark inside. She is the Black Widow!"
Thomas walked onstage in pink sneakers and ankle socks.
Once the stuff of quaint county fairs, eating contests now thrive in America, where a third of adults are obese and diners offer free T-shirts for polishing off massive burgers.
Eating contests are a serious business. There is a governing body called Major League Eating, with a charismatic chairman, George Shea, who hosted the Hooters contest. There are rules about vomiting. There are training regimens involving exercise and water overload. There is big prize money.
Competitors appear normal but are able to control their stomachs in abnormal ways. Chestnut, 28 and lanky with a buzz cut, unseated the reigning Nathan's champion six years ago and never left the throne. Thomas, 45, is said to be lacking a layer of fat around her stomach that most of us have.
They were joined by Bob "Notorious B.O.B" Shoudt, who once ate 13.5 pounds of chili spaghetti. There was Adrian "The Rabbit" Morgan, who once polished off 37 dozen oysters. In a surprise twist, Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi joined the eaters. The former Tampa resident tucked a napkin in his shirt and asked for more ranch.
Split among the best: $15,000.
"I am the chicken wing champion of the world," said Thomas. "Joey has to watch out."
Hooters girls sashayed on stage. There were 20 pounds of wings in each bowl. The contestants had 10 minutes.
Chestnut stood legs shoulder-width apart, one foot forward. Thomas bent at the waist, peering into her bowl with laser eyes. They were off. They tore the wings apart, shoving the bones in their mouths and sucking them nearly clean. Flesh splattered across their cheeks. Their hands turned orange with oil.
Bill "Biggins" Bresee cheered on Thomas. He didn't know her, but Thomas inspired Bresee to start eating for sport. He ate wings competitively for three years and even took some titles before he had to give it up.
"Health issues," he said.
Chestnut seemed sluggish for the first five minutes. Maybe he was focused.
At the five minute mark, he bucked his chest like a bronco and his eyes flared. He hit his stride. He was ahead by four or five wings, by Shea's estimate.
Thomas chugged water.
"It's been said she was born with no tonsils, no adenoids and no epiglottis!" said Shea.
Hunks of meat flew, sticking to cheeks, to the floor, to hair. Thomas furrowed her brow and stripped more bones until time ran out.
When it was done, Chestnut glanced sideways into Thomas's bowl. She rubbed her tiny, distended belly.
"I'm full," she said.
He gave her a little hug.
The numbers came back and Shea announced a stunning upset.
Thomas came in third with 131 wings. She shuffled offstage in her pink shoes and smiled at the crowd.
It was down to Chestnut and Morgan, who had been eating calmly and efficiently, far from the attention of the emcee. One ate 140 wings. One ate 144.
Chestnut draped a giant wrestling belt over his shoulder and made his way backstage past the bowls of decimated bones.
"I love Hooters and I love this competition," he said.
He broke the wings apart only halfway during battle, he explained. That way he didn't expend too much energy snapping them. The sauce was buttery, not spicy. It was his time.
A fan handed him a beer. He finished it with record speed.