Hard to Stomach

Breaking bread with Colorado's top competitive eater.

Donovan Busta may just be the man who finally dethrones Sonya Thomas. The 37-year-old, 105-pound Thomas, the number-two-ranked competitive eater in the world, managed to eat 161 chicken wings -- 5.09 pounds -- in twelve minutes at last year's National Buffalo Chicken Wing Festival. But Donovan, ranked number 27, is confident that by pushing his stomach capacity to around four and a half pounds, he'll be able to outwing the reigning champ come game time this Labor Day. "Everybody who has eaten wings with me in Buffalo recently says that I'm the guy who's going to take out Sonya Thomas," says the 6' 1", 265-pound Busta, a Home Depot employee by day.

George Shea, chair of the International Foundation of Competitive Eating, a group that supervises and regulates eating contests throughout the world, agrees. "I think it's very possible," he says. "The thing about chicken wings is that they're a great leveler. It's not as much about capacity -- how much food you can fit in your stomach -- as other events. It's really about strategy, about hand speed. That plays to Donovan's strengths. He's got very good jaw strength, and his hand-feed is one of the best I've seen."

Pretty impressive for a guy who until recently didn't even know what a chicken wing was.

"When I moved here from Minnesota ten years ago, I had never seen a chicken wing," Busta says. "But I started doing the happy-hour thing; my buddy and I would go out after work a couple of nights a week for a few beers and some wings, and I started to realize I could eat them pretty fast."

In 2000, when Busta got wind of KBPI's annual chicken wing eat-off, Wingbowl, he jumped at the opportunity. He placed fifth in that competition, but the conditions were far from optimal. "The chicken wings were brought in to the event from elsewhere, and they were disgusting," Busta explains. "They were nasty, cold, undercooked, dry -- just horrible. The next year we did it at the Stampede in Aurora, and I told them, 'You make them on site and make sure they're hot and out of the oven, and I will win that contest.'"

Organizers agreed, and Busta promptly blew the other wingers out of the water, winning a ticket to Los Angeles to see Kid Rock. The following year, Busta -- dubbed "Busta Nut" by KBPI jock Uncle Nasty -- took home the gold once again, snagging a trip to Cancun as a reward. But it was an invite to participate in the National Buffalo Chicken Wing Festival in Buffalo, New York, that proved to be the real prize. Busta took fourth in that competition, but that's where his professional competitive-eating career was born.

The most famous of these competitions is the annual Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog-Eating contest at Coney Island, where the wiry, 132-pound Takeru Kobayashi consistently devours unfathomable amounts of wieners. But beyond the frankfurters, there also exists a vast network of competitions across the globe, with a tight-knit community of eaters consistently competing. After meeting members of the IFOCE in Buffalo, Busta submerged himself in that community and exerted himself far beyond his chicken-wing comfort zone as he made his way to events around the country: the Krystal Square Off World Hamburger Eating Championship in Chattanooga, Tennessee; the GoldenPalace.com Grilled Cheese Eating Contest in Los Angeles; the World Tamale-Eating Championship in Louisville, Texas.

He also picked up the tricks of the trade. Like wrestlers racing to lose those last few pounds before weigh-ins, competitive eaters have a broad array of methods for increasing stomach capacity before a competition. One popular method is to quickly drink a gallon of water several hours before an eat-off, stretching the stomach to accommodate the eight pounds of liquid. Other eaters like to chase a great deal of white rice with water, allowing the rice to expand in their bellies. Busta prefers the more traditional method of simply eating egregious amounts of food several days prior to an event.

"A lot of people ask me, 'Do you starve yourself to prepare?'" Busta says. "It's actually quite the opposite. You have to eat as much as you can."

On one recent training expedition, Busta stomached three Chipotle burritos -- around four pounds of foodage -- in under eight minutes, inhaling the first in a mere 54 seconds.

There is, however, the tricky issue of eating so much food that a competitor vomits, known in the business as a "reversal." Eaters have to know their bodies well enough to know when they're going to blow chunks, as a reversal merits an instant disqualification; participants can reverse immediately after the ending bell is rung. To his credit, Busta, like Kobayashi and Thomas, has never vomited as a result of competitive eating.

"He's got the will of a champion," IFOCE chair Shea comments. "If you've seen him or spoken to him, you pick up on that right away. He's a champ; he's a gamer."

Which is why Shea had to invite him to Las Vegas.

Last week, Colorado's greatest glutton traveled to Sin City along with 31 other competitors for the inaugural Alka-Seltzer U.S. Open of Competitive Eating, the results of which will be aired July 28 to 30 on ESPN. Chowhounds were put up in a hotel and filmed day and night for three episodes of their trials and tribulations. Unlike most competitions, in which eaters gorge themselves in a free-for-all bonanza, the U.S. Open is a head-to-head, single-elimination game. The contests, which used food items from the ESPN SportsZone menu, were split into five rounds across the three days: five minutes of cheese fries with bacon; fourteen minutes of spaghetti; seven minutes of chopped salad; twelve minutes of potato skins; and a final fifteen-minute round of items from the Tailgate Platter: Swedish meatballs, celery and carrots with artichoke dip, chicken fingers, nachos and mini-slider sandwiches. The breakneck eating pace brought many to the point of reversal, with one winner forgoing post-match interviews in favor of praying to the porcelain god.

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