Competitive Eating’s Fastest Rising Star Has Nowhere to Go But Down

Miki Sudo burst onto the Major League Eating circuit in 2013 and quickly joined its highest echelon. But what’s in store for her now?
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Miki Sudo burst onto the Major League Eating circuit in 2013 and quickly joined its highest echelon. But what’s in store for her now?
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Miki Sudo is going to lose.

This much seems certain, given the leisurely rate at which the diminutive competitive eater, currently the top-ranked female in the world, is consuming the endless platefuls of gyoza that surround her at the Day-Lee Foods Gyoza Eating Competition. Dwarfed on either side by men twice her size, all of whom are rapidly shoveling fistfuls of dumpling guts into their mouths by any means necessary, 29-year-old Sudo has taken a far more measured approach, popping individual gyoza back like popcorn.

Eating competitions may be fun, but eating in an eating competition is not fun. Nobody wants to hoover hundreds of steaming hot dumplings in 93-degree weather. The three rows of men and women currently inhaling gyoza would be the first ones to tell you that eating competitions aren’t so much amusing spectacles as they are a chaotic stew of clogged windpipes, sodden boluses of food, and wholly underestimated athleticism.

Sudo’s fellow competitors are a motley crew that runs the gamut in shape, size, and even age; one married couple in their seventies, Rich and Carlene LeFevre, seem better suited for an early bird buffet and a round of Keno. Each is openly straining under the enormity of the task at hand, except Sudo, who is pacing back and forth on the stage barefoot, hand on hip, with her bottle-blonde cheerleader ponytail bouncing about as she laughs and jokes with the referees.

In the year and a half that Sudo has been on the scene, fans have flocked to her en masse. Watching her eat, it’s easy to see why. Competitive eating is wildly unappetizing, but Sudo makes it a spectacle worth stomaching. She’s likable — immensely so — but it’s her technique which, in a sea of gobble, manages to be simultaneously graceful and athletic. Study her opening minutes, and the likelihood of her victory seems near impossible. But watch longer and it becomes quickly apparent there is more than meets the eye.

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When Sudo came onto the circuit in 2013, she debuted at number seven, making her the first competitor in the history of the sport to open in the top ten. She quickly unseated the wildly popular reigning female champ, Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas, for the title of top-ranked female in July 2014 hot dog eating competition, while simultaneously clinching fourth place in the overall, mixed-gender Major League Eating rankings.

That’s where the success story hits a wall. The only athletes ranked above Sudo are reigning champ Matt “Megatoad” Stonie, the 24-year old wunderkind from San Jose who knocked Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, previously widely regarded as the greatest eater in the world, down to second place. Third seed Tim “Eater X” Janus has taken a step back from the eating circuit, appearing only at Nathan’s in July. Though the men’s and women’s competition is gender segregated at Nathan’s, Sudo consumed 38 dogs in ten minutes, compared to Janus’ 35.5, creating the widely accepted sentiment that Sudo is essentially a top-three contender.

Physical limits — as well as the sheer prowess of Chestnut and Stone — all but guarantee Sudo will never reach their numbers, yet natural talent all but ensures most other eaters will trail far behind.

Sudo is static at fourth — and the only way is down. For someone who ascended to the pinnacle so quickly, she now has to spend the majority of her career playing defense. Knowing this, what’s the point of competing? And for an athlete like Sudo who willingly abuses her body with tens of thousands calories in a sitting and then hits the gym maniacally to be able to say, in her own words, “Holy fuck, I’m the best in the world at something,” is being trapped in a holding pattern like this ever going to be enough?

***

The Day-Lee Foods Gyoza Eating Competition is one of the top events of Major League Eating’s annual circuit, attended by nearly all of the eaters worth paying attention to. Taking place roughly eight weeks after its noteworthy counterpart, the nationally televised Fourth of July Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Competition, the gyoza competition is the crown jewel of downtown Los Angeles’ Nissei Festival, a monthlong celebration of Japanese culture.

For Sudo, the pressure in her second season hasn’t decreased with experience. After her 2014 debut at Nathan’s earned her the rank of top female eater over Thomas, cynics wondered whether she’d be able to replicate her success against the Black Widow in 2015. She handily defeated the belt, eliminating any doubt that she’d locked down the female top spot by a wide berth for the foreseeable future. None of this relaxes Sudo.

“I’m not in my normal physical condition, so my performance might be disappointing, which is really sad for me, because I wanted to make this great,” Sudo emails the night before the competition, before sending two more apology emails for her reduced amount of preparation — anxiety no doubt exacerbated by her multiple-cancelled Spirit Airlines flights from her home city of Las Vegas to LA. (Sudo, a devoted member of the Vegas airline’s infamously tardy Nine Dollar Fare Club, will only compete in events where she can break even, which speaks volumes of what even the best female eater in the world earns.)

Having never been to an eating competition, when I meet Sudo the next morning, I’m inclined to believe her. She’s lost her cell phone the day prior, is debating driving to the airport to pick up a fellow competitor mere hours before the competition, and is currently leading us deeper into downtown L.A. on a fruitless hunt for Diet Mountain Dew, a pre-game necessity and security blanket of sorts for Sudo.

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Though her repeat Nathan’s victories have validated her previously speculative street cred, today’s gyoza competition is still no joke. Sudo may outperform the majority of MLE eaters in raw talent, but with the immensely popular sixth- and seventh-ranked eaters, Erik “The Red” Denmark and Adrian “The Rabbit” Morgan, in hot pursuit, it’s not impossible to believe that today’s competition may become anyone’s game.

***

While calling competitive eating a sport is a recent development, the grand tradition of eating competitions harkens back to state and county fairs in the latter half of the 19th century. If its roots are planted in carnival pageantry, Major League Eating’s creators George and Richard Shea are its modern day carnival barkers, with the keen marketing skills to match: a pair of brothers who spun a Nathan’s Hot Dog public relations account into a multi-million dollar “sport” by sheer will.

They launched the International Federation of Competitive Eating, later renamed Major League Eating, to serve as the governing board for all “sanctioned” eating competitions. This includes around 100 annual events of varying size, hosted by fairs and businesses across the country.

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By all accounts, the Shea brothers’ involvement helped organize the disparate, and rapidly dwindling, trend of local eating competitions. Their work attracted famed Japanese eater Takeru Kobayashi, the hot dog eating phenomenon who arrived at Nathan’s in 2001 to consume 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes and quickly became recognized worldwide, by name. With the recognition Kobayashi brought, MLE grew, as did its stable of competitive eaters.

The Shea brothers rapidly constructed an empire of spectacle — one some eaters, including Kobayashi, say the brothers built on their backs sans fair compensation. In an interesting conflict, MLE serves as the sole gatekeeper of determining which amateur eaters join the professional ranks, while also organizing many of the eating events, such as Nathan’s. The Coney Island competition, thanks to ESPN2 broadcast fees and ticket and vendor sales from its 10,000+ attendees, pulls in upwards of $2.5 million revenue annually, but pays a total purse of only $40,000. An increasingly frustrated Kobayashi left the sport in 2010 over his refusal to a sign an exclusive contract with MLE (he has been arrested for demonstrations at Nathan’s events since).

While some of the competitors at this year’s gyoza fest express similar sentiment, all are quick to mention that they’re having a good time simply competing, and most never expected to make it a day job. Sudo, who has a business degree from the University of Las Vegas, works in marketing for a Nevada restaurateur; the company is so keen to keep her that they created a freelance position for her that hews to her busy schedule of eating events. Another competitor works for Boeing; a third is a pastry chef. A fourth yet is the marketing director for Business Insider. And though the politics of a league that isn’t quite a league, as well as its potential exploitation of its athletes, do threaten to consume it as the activity grows increasingly commercial (“The game has changed now; it’s solidified in my mind as a sport,” says Richard), it’s hard to deny the entertainment value brought by its willing participants.

“I feel the responsibility to put on a good show, not disappoint people, and make their time worthwhile.”


The morning of the competition, the participants congregated at the stage, amongst a setup of chairs that looked highly ambitious for the event at hand. After all, how many hundreds were really going to turn out to watch people eat?

How wrong I was. Within hours, the plaza was packed. MLE announcer Sam Barclay, a buoyant Australian who joined MLE announcing for the free trips to Miami competitions, has the crowd in a near frothy frenzy as he officiates an LAPD vs. LAFD gyoza eat-off with the cadence of an auctioneer on methamphetamine.

A gaggle of attractive college girls huddle to one side, clutching signs that have big glittery hearts pledging devotion to reigning champ, Stonie. They’re flanked by a group of Chestnut fans who still can’t believe the man hailed as the greatest eater of all time lost six competitions in a row to a 23-year-old kid who can’t weigh more than 120 pounds soaking wet.

“We drove down from San Jose for this event because he’s our hometown hero, you know?” says one girl, flipping a yard of hair at me.

Joey is also from San Jose,” a passive-aggressive Chestnut fan snaps back, tensing for an altercation. Elsewhere, two divorced men from San Diego carrying a taxidermied rooster ask me if I’d like to see their cock — after all, he was their wing man. No one said competitive eating didn’t draw a weird crowd.

“I don’t have fans, they’re Team Sudo,” Sudo tells me of the rabid fan base clearly entertained by her, after having finally tracked down an acceptable Diet Mountain Dew substitute 30 minutes into our search. Her shirts, decorated with anime-like illustrations and emblazoned with catchy phrases such as “Because everybody is good at something,” and “Sprinkles are for winners” are hot sellers. (The latter tagline is from a Progressive Auto Insurance commercial she is tickled pink by, and quotes to herself, and others, often).

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“Miki is an ‘aww, shucks’ kind of girl, but she’s a real killer."


“These people recognize me, they show up, they scream for me, and I’ve been in the crowd for eating contests — they are not the most comfortable situations,” she, says, recognizing that her role isn’t just that of a competitor, but that of an athlete-entertainer. “I feel the responsibility to put on a good show, not disappoint people, and make their time worthwhile.”

***

Sudo has always been drawn to the quirkier sides of life. Her Japanese immigrant father and American mother met while working at a travel agency in New York City in the seventies, one they would come to inherit after the owners of the company left the country after getting into trouble with the Mafia — a fact she shares as if it’s an everyday occurrence to come to own a travel agency because of la cosa nostra. Her father moved the family to Japan when she was five, where they lived for seven years.

A teacher noticed Sudo’s competitive edge and encouraged her to explore that avenue. Which is how Sudo, wholly assimilated to Japanese culture by then, found herself competing in sumo wrestling tournaments at the age of eight. “There was a national competition, and in my division, I took second place,” she shares breezily. “…in the country.”

Sudo does that — drop bombs when you’re least expecting them — often, as evidenced by her follow up revelation that she also used to race unicycles. Disarmingly genuine, she possesses the extraordinary ability to come off self-effacing and gracious, without minimizing her accomplishments.

“Miki is an ‘aww, shucks’ kind of girl, but she’s a real killer,” says Richard Shae. Indeed, Sudo is one of the few eaters on the circuit not to have a nickname, usually considered a bombastic necessity alongside an eater persona, finding it flashy and ostentatious.

Sudo fell into competitive eating by accident, when she won a cereal eating competition in the dining hall her freshman year at Fordham University. She still has the prize, a DVD player, today.

Ten years later, in 2013, she took on a 12-pound pho eating challenge in Las Vegas after hearing about it at a local basketball game. “I never meant to take this seriously. It all started on a dare,” says Sudo, who ate all 12 pounds to win $1500.

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From there she was hooked, though she never planned to compete in MLE-sanctioned events. “I was literally shaking during my first competition,” she recalls. “I ended up beating out semi-pros, pros, and other people who really did take it seriously, and thought to myself ‘I conquered a fear and expanded the boundaries of my own comfort zone in a 12 minute contest. Cash, food, competition, travel. Let’s do more of these.”

“I remember when Miki wasn’t even in MLE, she said to me, ‘One day I might join and maybe I can beat Sonya [Thomas],’” said Pablo Martinez, another eater on the circuit who has known Miki for years. “I told her, ‘Um, I think you can already.’”

She won a Nathan’s qualifier in Las Vegas in 2013, which got her noticed by MLE, though she ended up opting out of competing that year for personal reasons. She began to compete locally over the course of the year — practice that came with added benefits of, well, free meals.

Sudo’s success in eating came at a time when, as these stories often go, she found herself at a crossroads. During her freshman year at Fordham, Sudo’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she withdrew from the university to move to Hawaii and take care of her. After a lengthy struggle, her mother passed away, and taking advantage of a university exchange program, Sudo enrolled at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas to finish the degree she had put on hold.

Having completed it in 2011, she had no real reason to stay in Las Vegas. She was planning to move back to Japan where her older sister, Midori, lives. “I had no intention of staying in America,” she admits. “I was going to fucking bounce, but I ended up being good at this.”

Though success has been the anchor keeping Sudo stateside, it’s come with its own inherent issues. There are no two ways to slice it — for fetishists of a certain persuasion, a slim, attractive young woman pushing her body to exorbitant limits touches a nerve in pleasurable ways that men like Chestnut and Stonie often can’t. Though fellow MLE eaters fall all over themselves to repeat to me that they think Sudo is excellent bar none, not simply as a woman, the fact that she is often viewed as a sexualized object is an unavoidable reality.

“I’ve had monetary offers for worn garments,” Sudo chimes in. “Didn’t you get asked for a photo of your feces? After the competition?” Martinez reminds her.

“I’ve met really cool people; amazing people,” says Martinez. “And then you get a lot of random ‘Show us your belly!’ types. Miki probably gets the worst ones.”

“I’ve had monetary offers for worn garments,” Sudo chimes in.

“Didn’t you get asked for a photo of your feces? After the competition?” Martinez reminds her. (She did).



***

In the minutes before the competition is to begin, activity is at an all time high. Contest volunteers dole out cups upon cups of contestants’ beverage preference sheets (water, soda, Crystal Light, beer), the more the better to rinse down gyoza. Sam Barclay is becoming increasingly more frenzied as he introduces each competitor with all the panache of a WWF announcer.

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The mechanics of an eating competition are simple. You have ten minutes to shovel as much food into your mouth as possible, sans regurgitation. Remaining food scraps are deducted from totals, and things can get close.

The obvious consideration is, of course, volume. Sudo estimates she can hold about 12 pounds of food in her stomach at any given time. But it’s negotiating volume in real time that becomes difficult. Most eaters adopt a move not dissimilar to a very fetching single, aggressive shimmy, intended to help digest food by compacting it, while adding an unintended air of choreographed whimsicality. EMTs stand by in the event of choking; though rare, it can happen. And the physical aftermath, though not as graphic as some might think, is still unpleasant.

Then there’s variability, an issue Sudo runs into often on hot dogs, her eating hallmark. “In practice, I’ve done 48, but in competition I’ve come nowhere close to that,” says Sudo, who ate 38 at Nathan’s this year. “When I cook them at home, I have control over how they’re prepared. I eat them hot. At competitions, with intros, food sits out. It’s harder to eat.”

The final gyoza, which look noticeably duller than they had 30 minutes ago, have been plated, and an army of volunteers stands at the ready to deploy refills as needed. With that, Barclay kicks off the ten-minute timer and the anticipation that had been building for a near hour finally breaks, as fans surge forward to press against the stage barriers to get a closer look.

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Watching someone eat is inherently disgusting on any scale (dinner dates are a form of social terrorism), but there’s something fascinatingly macabre about watching the whirl of mouth stuffing unfolding on stage. As Richard Shea had foretold, the show was immensely entertaining, especially with Barclay keeping the energy pulsating. The LeFevre’s, the elderly couple putting away gyoza at an alarming rate, are plated next to Martinez, still compacting away. Across the way, a reporter participating in the competition has given up to instead drink Sapporo, as a tall Korean woman dressed as a silken dumpling crossed with a Harajuku doll manages not to smudge her pristine pin-up makeup while she competes.

Stonie cracks first, pausing for a second to stop, look up to the sky, and take a few labored breaths. Sudo keeps eating. Chestnut falters next, letting loose a few dangerously close dry heaves before resuming activity. Sudo keeps eating.



It’s the main stage, however, where the real action is taking place. Juliette Lee, MLE’s ninth-ranked eater, and fourth-ranked female, is shoveling fistfuls of gyoza into her mouth, trying valiantly to keep pace with Adrian Morgan and Erik Denmark. All three are unable to zone out Sudo, cool as a cucumber three minutes in. But the sight to behold are the newly crowned king, and his dethroned predecessor: Stonie and Chestnut; Megatoad vs. Jaws. Both are hunched over the table, hoarding gyoza in their mouths, at a rate so fast the dumplings are little more than taupe blurs in the air.

Around minute three, Stonie cracks first, pausing for a second to stop, look up to the sky, and take a few labored breaths. Sudo keeps eating. Chestnut falters next, letting loose a few dangerously close dry heaves before resuming activity. Sudo keeps eating. Martinez’s twerks get more violent. Sudo’s best friend, Michelle Lesco takes a moment to shake out her limbs, before stopping entirely to catch her breath. Sudo just keeps eating. It goes on like this, utterly transfixing, as one by one, competitors show signs of letting up. At one point I find myself willing Sudo to crack, just so that I can be reminded she’s human.  Yet again, she does not, putting one foot in front of the other at an undaunted rate.

***

The very nature of reaching for the top of your sport is an unrelenting refusal to acknowledge the fact that one day you may not be. It’s this burning desire, in the face of competition, aging, and even reality, which separates champions from participants.

“When I started doing big events in Las Vegas, not MLE events yet, but big ones, people started to compare me to Sonya,” Sudo recalls. “I wasn’t about to live in someone else’s shadow. It was extremely flattering to be compared to the most dominant female eater, but going into Nathan’s [in 2014], I said ‘If you guys are going to compare us, I’m going to come out on top.’”

Bold, yes, though Sudo is rarely performative in her dedication. She’s instead keenly aware that her success is far more ephemeral than that of other competitors.

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“It’s scary because I can only go down from here,” Sudo acknowledges, when mentioning the low likelihood of her overtaking Stonie or Chestnut. “Joey and Stonie are in a league of their own. It’s much more likely that I would fall in the rankings, than I would climb them.”

The rankings are calculated holistically by MLE, taking into account not only speed, weight, and type of food, but difficulty of fellow competitors as well. As different eaters attend different events, ratings are recalculated sporadically by the Shea brothers and Barclay, rather than on a per competition basis. Despite having technically beaten third-ranked Janus at Nathan’s this year by 2.5 hot dogs, and competing far more frequently than Janus, Sudo still remains trapped at fourth in the rankings. She may be one of the most dominant females competitive eating will ever see, but when it comes to seeding, she’s forced to remain a top-three with an asterisk, at best.

Exactly ten minutes and one second into the competition, Miki Sudo finally cracks. Barclay has called time, and Sudo’s face, previously as unfazed and smiling as if she were at a party, immediately flushes as she takes a series of deep breaths to steady herself. It’s clear my guess is as good as hers about how she placed, and I realize now, this is what the rest of Sudo’s life will look like for the foreseeable future: pushing herself to the limit, just to play defense. Her mantra, “You can endure pretty much anything for ten minutes,” begins to feel like a Sisyphean loop.

“Of course I’d love to move up in the rankings, but that’s not really a priority or a goal,” Sudo had once told me, in a tone that made it quite clear moving up in the rankings were both a priority and a goal, no matter how unrealistic. “I am the top female, and I’d like to stay the most dominant female around.”

She recovered quickly, ever the consummate professional, reminding me — and likely, herself — that even if she was destined to remain fourth in the rankings, the journey wasn’t going to suddenly become any easier. “It’s a competition against my potential. I don’t have to be the best, but if I don’t do my best, it’s a disappointment. How I perform at the table has nothing to do with any of these people. If you’re honest with yourself, what the guy next to you is doing just doesn’t affect you.”

She insisted her goals expanded far past arbitrary rankings; she would like to own her own small chain of restaurants, build her Team Sudo brand, and hopefully parlay her eating career into TV hosting opportunities, the latter of which doesn’t seem nearly impossible, especially given Sudo’s immense likability and ingrained willingness to try anything once.

When the results come in, after every last scrap of chicken and pork has been accounted for, the results are as predicted: Stonie in first with 343 gyoza, trailed closely by Chestnut with 339. When Barclay announces that the margin between third and fourth place came down to just three gyoza, the color drains from Sudo’s face. And quickly it’s over: Miki Sudo in third place with 178 gyoza, just as expected. Miki Sudo did not lose after all.

"I don’t have to be the best, but if I don’t do my best, it’s a disappointment. How I perform at the table has nothing to do with any of these people. If you’re honest with yourself, what the guy next to you is doing just doesn’t affect you."

After the competition, Sudo signs autographs for packs of kids all clamoring to meet her, forgoing pens entirely to hand off keychains and homemade My Little Pony charms from her backpack to the enraptured crowd. Despite having made a large group of children immeasurably happy (one boy, so delighted by the pony charm Sudo handed him, politely shook her hand before scurrying away to burst into tears of joy), and defending her women’s title from last year to boot, she still seems a little wistful.

“I’m just happy I won,” she claims. “The rankings…it is what it is. I’m glad I was able to keep my top female title, so it’s cool.” I would believe her, maybe, if this was anyone but Sudo, but I let it go. She’s right, of course, about the road ahead not being easy. Static, perhaps, but by no means easy.

Over the next few weeks, Sudo’s career trudges along with few surprises. Stonie, Chestnut, and Sudo take first, second, and third at a rib eating competition the week after gyoza, with Chestnut and Sudo heading directly to a Buffalo wing eating competition over Labor Day in Buffalo, New York. With Stonie sitting the Buffalo weekend out, Chestnut takes first, and Sudo slides into second — a victory mildly diminished by the fact that she’d lost a smaller challenge, the Buffalo Buffet Challenge, the night before to Sonya Thomas. Though it was a smaller challenge, the Black Widow finally caught up to the usurper who had knocked her off her throne.

The season is slowly entering its home stretch, and now that it looks like the die has been cast, Sudo finally has time to split her focus and manage the many things she’s put on hold, like finding a new apartment, and catching up on missed episodes of Bachelor in Paradise. We keep in touch here and there, mainly during the myriad times she’s waiting for a delayed flight to take off for an eating competition (she still refuses to entertain any criticisms of her beloved Spirit Airlines, who she’s certain is “doing the best they can”). Sudo mentions that while she has no plans to quit eating, she’s starting to think about moving to Los Angeles quite soon to pursue her entertainment career at the same time.

Two hours after I file my story on her, I get a text from Sudo.

“I moved up in the rankings! I went from fourth place to third!!” Like I said, Miki Sudo knows how to drop a bomb.

A phone call follows, as a joyous and tearful Sudo, happier than I’ve ever heard her, speculates that Janus’ absence over the season must have played a part in his dropping to fourth, before reminding herself, “and I ate more hot dogs than he did at Nathan’s.” Sudo begs off, full of apologies: myriad well wishers have to be called back, Team Sudo must be informed, YouTube challenge videos need to be shot in honor.

“I guess now I’m really stuck at this rank forever,” she jokes before hanging up. And she might not be wrong. But in just two years, she cracked the top three, and did it without the asterisk. With one impossible victory achieved against all odds, that next one is looking even more intoxicating.

Miki Sudo is no longer stuck. Tomorrow, she has a new rank to come for. But today? Today, the third-ranked eater in the world, has earned her sprinkles.

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Photos by Boyz Bieber