Winging it in Clearwater

Joey “Jaws” Chestnut battles the Black Widow at Hooters' wing-eating showdown.

click to enlarge WINGS OF GLORY: Joey “Jaws” Chestnut took first place at Hooters' first world wing-eating championship in Clearwater. - Arielle Stevenson
Arielle Stevenson
WINGS OF GLORY: Joey “Jaws” Chestnut took first place at Hooters' first world wing-eating championship in Clearwater.

Ten minutes and a metal bowl filled with 20 pounds of Hooters chicken wings. The first world wing-eating championship rounded out its 12-city tour at the original Hooters in Clearwater on Thurs., July 26. The competition was an official event of Major League Eating. Brothers Owen and George Shea started MLE in 1997, and George was there in Clearwater to introduce competitors and host the event from the outdoor stage, where he show-stopped with carnie-like fervor.

“We have crossed through woods and into the underworld,” Shea warned. “You have 10 minutes.”

It was a Tampa who’s who, with appearances by former Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden and Tampa’s own Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi. The competitors represented championship eaters in everything from oysters to asparagus.

But I was there to see the Black Widow.

On her 45th birthday, wing-eating champion Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas entered the arena with AC/DC’s “Hells Bells” blaring. Surrounded by busty beach babes, the 100-pound wing-eating champion stood alongside her competitors. “I’m the chicken-wing-eating champion,” Thomas declared. “Joey needs to watch out.”

When a wing entered Thomas’ mouth, all that emerged from her lips were clean bones. It took seconds for her to polish off each crispy wing, stopping only to take a swig of ice water. Competitive eating is never pretty, but Thomas' style is a rapid-fire ballet of crispy poultry.

“Sonya is hunched over her bowl like a jackal on the Serengeti,” Shea shouted.

Chestnut was less agile, fistfuls of wings shoveled in and spat out like a wildebeest.

“Joey is not N’Sync!” Shea quipped.

Mandvi, a competitor in the challenge, took his time.

“He’s asked for ranch dressing,” Shea said. “Failure stands over his head!”

I stood between two divided fans. Rick, of Largo, was certain Chestnut would win.

“Did you see him on Hell's Kitchen?” Rick asked. “I saw that and knew Jaws was set to whoop some ass.”

But Jesse of Tampa believed in his Black Widow.

“She is going to win,” Jesse proclaimed to Rick. Jesse was holding up a hand-drawn poster depicting a spider with wings in each hand and the message, “Bite the competition black widow.”

Chestnut is the number-one ranked world champion eater, thanks to the six Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest championships under his belt. Wings have been Chestnut’s Kryptonite in the past, and he’s lost to Thomas twice before.

The heat outside was nearly unbearable — one older man even passed out on the concrete in front of the stage. Competitors' red faces dripped with sweat as they hurried to consume as many wings as possible.

Ten minutes up, the contestants took one last swallow.

Mandvi polished off 15 wings in the 10-minute span. “They could use a little more seasoning,” he said sarcastically.

As the bowls were weighed and wings counted, the official Hooters hula-hoop girl took to the stage. Then the results came in.

The Black Widow did not slay the competition; she came in third with 131 wings in 10 minutes. That’s one wing every 4.6 seconds.

“I’m so pissed!” Jesse said.

In second place was Adrian Morgan from Baton Rouge, La. Morgan took down 140 wings, roughly one wing every 4.3 seconds.

Joey “Jaws” Chestnut finally found wing-eating victory, devouring 144 wings in 10 minutes. Chestnut ate one wing every 4.2 seconds.

“I told you, didn’t I?” Rick said smiling. “Once I saw Joey eat those wings on Hell’s Kitchen the other day, I knew he would win.”

Jesse looked crushed, and I could relate. But standing in this temple to big boobs and unabashed gluttony, I was glad the people had chosen to cheer on a tiny woman as she stuffed her face with wings.

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