To be a successful villain, you have to have some endearing or unique characteristics along with the antagonism. Villains cause controversy and heroes dissolve controversy. But often it is the villain who gets the bulk of the attention because it takes balls to put your reputation on the line, to say fuck you to those who may have at once helped you, to be a spiraling-out-of-control-side-show that everyone loves. Carrying out a villain's personality comes at a price, a high price usually. Usually you have to sacrifice the respect and kinship of those in your sport or industry in exchange for public popularity.
Maybe I am being a bit unfair including the whole world in my analogy because I am generally basing my opinion on American popular culture. Before I go further in my analysis of heroes and villains in CE, let me describe some top villains in some other sports:
The first person who comes to mind is Barry Bonds - he is the quintessential sports villain, raked with controversy and talent. Barry has long been a nemesis of the media and has often been referred to as a selfish and arrogant a-hole. He has obviously split fans and formed a cloud of darkness over himself with the allegations and inevitable conclusion that he used steroids. But what makes Barry so interesting and likable (in terms of a story) is that he may be the best power hitter to ever play the game and when he breaks Hank Aarons career home run record, the most revered record in baseball, he will be the biggest and most popular villain the sport has ever seen. As much as the media and the casual fans may dislike Barry as a person and discredit his talent because of his steroids use, he is still always the biggest story in baseball, on the field and off the field.
Dennis Rodman was also a classic sports villain during his illustrious basketball career. Rodman made a name for himself as a bad boy on a team full of villains including Bill Lambeer in Detroit in the late 80's and early 90's. Rodman led the NBA in rebounds and led the Pistons to two championships before going loony, dying his hair like a rainbow flavored snow cone, and dominating the league in tattoos, body piercings, and technical fouls while winning three more championships with the Chicago Bulls. Rodman, despite being hated by opposing teams because of his dirty play and antics, was loved by the fans and always created headlines with his behavior. But people cared because Rodman had talent and validity as a player as well not just a freak show.
In the NFL, Terrell Owens stands out as public fascination No. 1. Owens has loads of talent as a receiver and can seemingly put up hall of fame numbers without trying or caring but his love of the spotlight has made him the big headlines. He drove himself out of San Francisco and Philadelphia because of his selfishness. It seems as though he drove one of the most respected coaches in NFL history, Bill Parcels, out of Dallas because of his on the field and off the field controversies which included an alleged suicide attempt. He has maybe alienated all if not the majority of his teammates, gathered numerous league and team punishments because of misbehavior, and pissed off all of the fans in every place that he has ever been; but who is the top story in the NFL?: Terrell Owens and the Dallas Cowboys.
In the world of women's sports, figure skater Tanya Harding has to be on the top of the list of villains. Tanya took a pretty bold route to gaining popularity as a villain when she hired her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and a group of hit men to take out her main American rival, Nancy Kerrigan's knees with a baseball bat before the 1994 Winter Olympics. Tanya had a bit of a reputation as a bad girl prior to the planned hit on Kerrigan but that move shinned a solar sized spotlight on Harding. After her involvement in the incident, Tanya Harding and women's figure skating was front page news.
So the question is, are there any true villains in the sport of Competitive Eating?
The first name that comes to mind is obviously Dale Boone. Dale fit’s most of the criteria – controversial, unpredictable, arrogant, boastful, antagonistic and he has been suspended multiple times for misbehavior as well. The one thing lacking in Boone’s resume as a villain is legitimacy as a top eater. He may have been in the top ten in talent at one time but now his shouts of self confidence and guarantees of victory seem more like mere antics than real threats. Don Lerman definitely walked the line between hero and villain throughout his career and was always a fan favorite because of it. Don's late career and post career antics have been less than successful however as well.
Another potential CE villain candidate could be Sonya Thomas. Sonya’s nickname, the Black Widow, certainly carries weight as a villainous character. But Sonya, despite being one of the most interesting stories and still possibly the biggest enigma in CE, does not have the appeal of a villain. She is not regularly boastful or arrogant before contests, she does not break rules purposefully or insult other eaters - she is rather cordial, polite and humble in almost all of her interactions in person and online. She is a fierce competitor and often losing has brought out the worst in her but her stock as a villain is pretty low.
Are there any other current top eaters that could be villains instead of heroes?
Joey Chestnut? American HERO
Eater X? Mysterious HERO
Pat Bertoletti? Punk HERO
Humble Bob? Humble HERO
Rich LeFevre? Retired HERO
Chip Simpson? Dr. HERO
Crazy Legs? Obvious HERO
Seaver Miller? Literal HERO
Arturo Rios? Natural HERO
Me? Wanna be Viking HERO
Which brings me to Kobayashi. Is Kobayashi a villain? His off the plate antics would not indicate Kobayashi as a villain – he is very respectful, he is truly committed to advancing competitive eating as a sport, he has revolutionized the sport. So, he can’t be a villain, right? He is not a villain in the true sense of the definition laid out by other sports, but to many in America, he is a patriotic villain for stealing the coveted Nathan’s Hot Dog title on America’s Independence Day for the last 6 years.
Current and future competitive eaters should consider their persona before embarking on a career. I noticed some eaters trying this lately - El Toro and Ron Koch for example, but once again results at the table have to provide interest as well. I think competitive eating could probably use more legitimate villains for the purpose of story lines but choosing that path does come with at the least, a social cost. Some people are better suited to be villains, you have to be different, you have to be vain, but you have to still be likeable - so if you think you have the right mix of good and bad, you may have a recipe for great success.