Will Reigning Champ Show for Hot Dog Eating Contest?

07/03/2007 at 02:00 PM EDT

Will Reigning Champ Show for Hot Dog Eating Contest?
Takeru "The Tsunami" Kobayashi (left) and Joey "Jaws" Chestnut
BP/INF; Jennifer Lombardo/FilmMagic
The Dog Day of July is nearly here, and there's still no official word on whether six-time Yellow Belt winner Takeru Kobayashi of Japan will participate in Wednesday's annual Fourth of July hot dog eating contest at Coney Island.

But his chief rival – Californian Joey Chestnut, a San Jose State University student – is ready to fight him like, well, a dog.

"I don't know what he's bringing to the table, if he's playing head games with me or he's actually hurt," Chestnut, 23, tells his hometown paper, the San Jose Mercury News, after Kobayashi's revelation last week that he is suffering an arthritic jaw, which he blamed on years of abusing his mouth in food contests.

"But I'm going after it like he's 100 percent and strong as ever," vows Chestnut.

At last year's event, Kobayashi, 29, finished ahead of Chestnut by only one wiener – in all, 53.75 Nathan's Famous hot dogs in 12 minutes.

But then, last month in an Arizona meet, Chestnut bettered Kobayashi, setting a new world record: 59.5 hot dogs in 12 minutes.

"I'm sure there's speculation out there that it's gamesmanship," George Shea, whose International Federation of Competitive Eating is behind the Coney Island event, tells the Mercury News of Kobayashi's news.

"But I don't know that," says Shea. "He's never played games like this before. But, as Joey said, he's never been the underdog before."

And despite Kobayashi's possible handicap, Shea also says his federation is still ranking him No. 1. That puts him ahead of second-place Chestnut, who has set more records.

To see the event live, tune in to ESPN at noon ET on July 4.

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