Hard to Stomach

Chow down: Donovan Busta devours the competition.
Mark Manger

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 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.

"It was a blast," Busta says. "Being in front of the cameras for three days, there were great matches, great competitions. They outfitted us with U.S. Open Competitive Eating shirts, and we were walking through the casino like we owned the place." Busta and company even took in the buffet at the Luxor, where he and 24 other eaters worked their way through 157 plates of food, prompting mock infuriation from the chef, who hammed it up for the cameras, screaming that they would run him out of business. Although Busta didn't bring home the bacon, he's confident that those who tune in to see the results will be pleased.

"The sport is really catching on," he says. "I think the grossness factor has gone away and the curiosity level is getting higher. People want to see how we do it. When you sit and watch Kobayashi eat eleven and a half pounds of pasta in ten minutes, it's truly amazing."

"I think it's the drama of the contest that draws people to it," Shea comments. "Some people object to calling it a sport, but it's very pure. It's like running. When someone gets from point A to point B faster than someone else, they win. It's indisputable. That's the same with us: Whoever eats the most wins. It's pure competition.

"A lot of people are interested in competitive eating because we've reached a point where there's such a gap between athletes and fans in professional sports," Shea continues. "You watch Lance Armstrong or Tom Brady and they're great to see, but those aren't the type of guys who are going to go out and have a beer with you after. They live in this elite, rarefied world that you can't relate to. Our guys you can relate to. These guys could literally be your next-door neighbor."

Colorado's grub-devouring next-door neighbor is taking a brief break after his U.S. Open appearance to visit his family in Minnesota and unwind from his latest grueling competition. But you can be sure the 27th-best competitive eater in the world won't sit idly for long. There are still chicken wings out there to be devoured, local upstarts to swat down. Labor Day is just around the corner, and that Sonya Thomas needs a wake-up call.

A Year for a Life

Chris LaFore begged the judge's forgiveness for using the present tense when she talked about her dead son Jason in a Jefferson County courtroom last Tuesday. Almost nine months earlier, Gregory Nester had pulled his truck and trailer out in front of Jason; Jason's motorcycle had collided with the truck, and Jason died at the scene. Now the courtroom was silent as Chris asked the judge to give Nester the maximum sentence possible -- up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine, on the charge of reckless driving resulting in death to which Nester had already pleaded guilty.

Chris told the judge the story of "Jace's" younger brother, Christian, who was riding a motorcycle when he was killed in a similar accident six years before. "I pray every night," she said. "ŒPlease let me dream of my boys tonight.'"

The LaFores own a custom motorcycle shop in Lakewood, where both boys worked until their accidents. Inside the shop, which is just down the street from where Nester cut Jace off, a bike with an engine built by Christian sits in a frame created by Jace ("The Ride of Their Lives," January 13).  

Before Judge James Demlow handed down the sentence, the defendant's attorney explained that his client had been pulling a trailer filled with furniture from his mother, who'd recently died. Nester is from Texas and unfamiliar with the area where he was driving. He's also a Big Brother volunteer, a blood donor and a working member of society with no criminal record, the attorney said. Plus, he's a biker who wears a helmet, while Jason was a rider who didn't. (Helmets aren't required in Colorado.) And Nester himself read an apologetic statement in his thick Texas accent.

That statement didn't do him much good. Because of his interest in motorcycles, the judge said, he should have had more concern for other bikers on the road. He sentenced Nester to the full year in jail and the maximum $1,000 fine. And then Judge Demlow refused a requested stay of thirty days so that Nester could prepare for his sentence.

Nester was taken away in handcuffs. -- Luke Turf

A Pain in the Assets

After nearly three years of fighting, Susan Demander finally won her battle against the Douglas County Assessor's Office.

Demander had been arguing since 2003 that her Victorian-style office building should not be valued more highly than the almost-identical property next door ("A Tale of Two Buildings," July 7).

When she had initially complained, she was told that the difference was because her building had a finished basement and the other property did not. She accepted that decision, but was shocked to discover a $160,619 gap in the valuations when they came out earlier this year -- even though at that point, both buildings had finished basements.

When she couldn't get an answer as to why there was such a huge discrepancy, she asked Westword to investigate. Staff at the assessor's office said they were unaware that the other property had a finished basement, since there were no building permits to prove it. Soon, however, those permits were discovered.

Originally, Demander had been told that assessments couldn't be revisited until 2007, but because of the new development, the assessor's office sent the case to an independent arbitrator for evaluation. Last Friday, the arbitrator reduced the value of Demander's property to within $20,000 of that of the other building, which means she has quite a bit less to pay in property taxes. "I was happy," Demander says of the outcome.

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