The Invader (left) and Pork-Slap going toe-to-toe, or elbow-to-elbow.
The tension is thick in the USquare food court on University Avenue Saturday afternoon. Thick enough to cut with plastic cutlery. Five professional eaters stand waiting for the signal from Arnie "Chowhound" Chapman so they can begin slogging down fried rice, orange chicken, pizza and other food court delicacies as quickly as they can.
Paul "Pork-Slap" Arcaric hovers over his tray, bouncing from foot to foot like a boxer shaking out before a fight, his earphones pounding rock music into his head. Ian "The Crocodile" Coker, an Australian native, adjusts the bow tie on his tasteful tuxedo. Ian "The Invader" Hickman sits in a Zen-like trance, owning the confidence that comes from holding over a half-dozen eating records and starring on MTV's daring exposé, True Life: I'm A Competitive Eater.
Finally, the Chowhound -- an energetic and engaging master of ceremonies -- summons the audience of about 75 people and begins the countdown to gluttony. Like any sporting event, competitive eating comes complete with heckling fans and jeering spectators.
"He's spilling some of his food!" rattles one fan, trying to get the referee's attention.
Some of the fans are here to cheer on friends. Some have unknowingly stumbled on the competition on their way to Quizno's. Others hope to compete themselves.
"I didn't eat anything this morning, or last night," says 19-year-old Joe Green of Madison.
"Classic mistake," I tell him. "The Invader had oatmeal and bananas two hours before the competition and look at him now."
We both turn to watch as Hickman devours his food in revolting fashion. The food court grows silent as the competition drags on, fans hypnotized by the reddened, chomping faces of the competitors. But Chowhound continues screaming into the mike, his assistant and referee, David "Coondog" O'Karma, wipes sweat from Chowhound's forehead and neck with a handkerchief.
When time is up, the crowd breathes a collective sigh of relief. Even the paramedics -- yes, there are paramedics in attendance -- seem to relax. Pork-Slap backs away from the table, his lips red, chin dripping with the remnants of orange chicken. A look of panic spreads across his face, "I need to poop."
The competition is judged on how many trays of food each competitor puts away. The first-place prize of $750 goes to the overconfident-bordering on cocky-Hickman. The runner-up, the Crocodile from Australia, takes home $250.
But as Chowhound explains, "Money can be spent. But winning the University Square food eating championship is something you can take to the grave."