The participants ready themselves for battle. The Black Widow stretches her neck. Deep Dish sets the final play­list on his iPod — he's listening to Dillenger Four, a punk band from Minnesota. Notorious B-O-B pours the last few cups of his raspberry drink. Hoover blows his nose in a tissue and says a quick prayer.

"Everybody has their pickles!" the announcer says. "Everybody's ready!"

Wrecking Ball turns to Hoover, looking for some last-second pointers.

Competitors take several different approaches to the pickle.
Tara Nieuwesteeg
Competitors take several different approaches to the pickle.
At five feet tall and 105 pounds, Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas is one of the most feared eaters in the world.
Tara Nieuwesteeg
At five feet tall and 105 pounds, Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas is one of the most feared eaters in the world.

"Sean's asking for advice," the announcer tells the crowd. "It's too late, buddy!"

There was a time when eating contests were confined to elementary-school cafeterias, truck-stop steak houses, and rural county fairs. The winners got free meals, T-shirts, a photo on the wall, a weird look from the waitress. Now there are more than 80 sanctioned Major League Eating competitions a year and hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake. ESPN televises the annual Nathan's Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest live. Spike TV had a competitive-eating reality show. National restaurant chains and casinos line up to sponsor events, and advertisers include Pepto-Bismol, Heinz, and Old Navy.

"Watching people eat has never been more popular in this country," says Antolini, Major League Eating's head judge and the announcer for the pickle contest. "You don't want to watch it, but you can't look away."

Major League Eating was founded by George and Richard Shea, brothers who started doing public relations for Nathan's in the late-1980s. It wasn't until the five-foot-eight, 140-pound Takeru Kobayashi debuted in 2001 that the public's appetite for pro eating began to intensify. Two and a half million people watched as the otherwise aloof Kobayashi buzzsawed through an unholy number of dogs, astounding viewers with his violent, sloppy, open-palmed approach. Though there is perhaps no more American sport than competitive eating, the only competitor to beat the diminutive Japanese native in any serious hot-dog contest was a Kodiak bear. "When the bear came out, I saw a flash of fear for a second in Kobayashi's eyes," the Fox color analyst said during the original broadcast. "Because he's never faced competition like this."

Kobayashi proved you didn't need to be a behemoth to win a lot of contests, says Ryan Merz, a former Major League Eating judge and author of Eat This Book, about his time on the circuit. "It's called the 'Belt of Fat Theory,' " he says. "The idea is, if you don't have that fat gut up front, your stomach has room to expand, and you can pump in more food in less time. The top eaters almost all stay in traditional athletic shape."

Seeing the trim, toned Kobayashi on TV inspired 175-pound Hoover, the religious eater, to turn pro five years ago. Now 28, Hoover was a structural engineering student at the University of Florida at the time and played on the school's soccer team. He'd always been an athlete, and from very early on, friends and family noticed his massive consumptive capabilities.

"When I was a kid and we'd all go to CiCi's after soccer games, I'd eat like literally a hundred pieces of pizza," he says. In college, teammates would marvel — and cringe — at what he could do to a Chinese food buffet. "I'd get five or six scoops of everything, even if there was like 80 different foods."

He started researching competitive eating. The top "gurgitators" — what they call themselves — have their travel expenses paid for, and with contest winnings, appearance fees, and endorsements, they can earn six figures a year. "That's the goal," says the recently married Hoover, who, despite being the eighth-ranked eater in the world, works a day job as a manager at a Publix in Jacksonville.

"I can honestly say that my life is like one big vacation," says Deep Dish, the Mohawk-rocking punk fan who's the third-ranked eater in the world. He's been doing this for six years and says he's made "at least $40,000" each year. Nearly every other week, Deep Dish travels to a new part of the country for an event: Buffalo for wings, Louisiana for grits, Denver for Rocky Mountain "oysters." At each contest, he's treated like a dietary deity, signing autographs, posing for photos, appearing on the local TV news.

"Eating is one of the few things I'm good at in life," Deep Dish says. He was chubby and quiet as a kid and didn't have many friends. But he had a big family, and they liked to cook. "Food was my one true love growing up," he says. "No matter what was going on, I always had food around to make me feel better." Now Deep Dish holds more than 25 Major League Eating records.

That's where Wrecking Ball, the Army veteran from Palm Beach Gardens, would like to be one day. "Everybody eats," he says, "but these are the best of the best eaters. I think it's pretty neat seeing if you can be better than maybe everyone in the entire world at something."

During three and a half years of service in the Army, he was stationed mostly in South Korea and San Diego. He liked being in the military, but there was a problem. "I've always eaten a lot," he says, "but that got me into a lot of trouble in the Army." He says he was always on the line of what the military deems "overweight."

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