It’s 2 in the afternoon, and Darron Breeden hasn’t eaten all day. Which seems odd for a man who has made a fair amount of fame and fortune by doing precisely that. In the world of competitive eating, Breeden is a star. Only two people on the planet can consume more food in less time than he can.
After earning second place at the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest for two years running, Breeden has his eye on the gold medal in this summer’s annual Independence Day challenge at Coney Island. Despite ranking as the third-best competitive eater in the world, he’ll face steep competition: 13-time champion Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, who last year broke his own world record by downing 75 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes.
But despite his lack of a menacing nickname, Breeden has a certain quiet confidence. Could this year finally be his year?
It all started with the “Freshman 15”
The 32-year-old credits Virginia Tech with originating his gargantuan appetite.
“You know the expression ‘the Freshman 15’? Well, I gained 50 pounds my freshman year,” says Breeden of his time as a business major. “I’m not kidding. I went from 170 to 220-something. I was no longer living under my parents’ roof with them regulating what I was eating, so I would go to the dining-hall buffet for every lunch and dinner. And the partying didn’t help, let’s be honest.”
After maxing out at 285 pounds, he realized something had to change. With a deliberate combination of diet and exercise, he eventually returned to a healthy weight for his six-foot height, in the 165-to-185-pound range. Yet as journalist Ryan Nerz explains in Eat This Book: A Year of Gorging and Glory on the Competitive Eating Circuit, the anatomical key to competitive eating success is to “maintain a big man’s stomach capacity within a small man’s frame.”
Perhaps Breeden’s extreme weight gain followed by extreme weight loss did the trick. Breeden remembers being a “decent eater” growing up, but not notably voracious or speedy. It was only after his significant slimming-down that he started winning eating contests. Despite what one might assume, being overweight or obese is actually a disadvantage in eating contests: The heaviest competitor last year, 400-pound Eric “Badlands” Booker, finished in last place.
Breeden’s life forever changed at a restaurant in Japan. His mother is Japanese, and they spoke the language at home; post-college, he taught English in the country. A local establishment challenged patrons to eat five pounds of curried rice in half an hour, clearly figuring most people couldn’t even do that. Breeden entered as a lark and downed the food in a mere six minutes. Hey, he remembers thinking, I’m pretty good at this.
He entered his first official competition at the 2016 Norfolk qualifier for the Nathan’s contest. He consumed 28 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes, a mark that EatFeats.com called a record for a first-timer. Nonetheless, Breeden finished third—not quite high enough to advance to the nationals.
Seeking to avenge his bronze medal, Breeden returned the following year and destroyed the qualifier’s competition with 38 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes. Contest emcee George Shea remarked that Breeden “looked like an anaconda that swallowed a pig.” At Coney Island that July, Breeden finished in fifth place with 38.5 hot dogs and buns—and has either maintained or improved his placing every year since.
In 2018: third place, with 43. In 2019: second place, with 50. In 2020: second place, with 42. In 2021, who knows?
Gearing up for the Super Bowl of eating
Preparation starts months in advance. “I try to keep my stomach stretched by drinking a lot of liquids and eating low-calorie vegetables. I eat huge amounts of cabbage,” Breeden says. Those greens allow him to practice chewing and swallowing quickly without feeling full. “Starting around April or May, I’ll do one practice run a week with the hot dogs. I’ve actually eaten more than 50 [his official contest record] in a practice run.”
The night before the contest, he’ll only consume something small, like a bowl of soup. Day of, he won’t eat anything at all. Plus, he has a few strategies up his sleeve. “Fatigue is a real thing. It gets tiring eating the same thing over and over a few minutes in,” says Breeden. “So I’ll start with water but switch to Gatorade or Powerade, something with flavor. It resets the palate, so to speak. But I try not to use that too early on in the game.”
Tom Brady doesn’t win the Super Bowl every year. LeBron James doesn’t win the NBA championship every year. Yet Joey Chestnut has won the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest for 13 of the past 14 years. (2015 proved the lone exception, when Chestnut finished two hot dogs and buns behind Matt “The Stone” Stonie, currently ranked fourth in the world.) Can Breeden take down Chestnut?
In fact, he’s already done so several times. Competitive eaters travel the country—or, during COVID-19, turning to live webcam—for contests held at state fairs and the like. Breeden bested Chestnut at the 2018 World Chili Eating Challenge in Orlando, Florida; the 2018 World Cheese Curd Eating Championship in a Milwaukee suburb; and the 2020 Halloween Candy Bowl in Las Vegas.
The cheese-curd championship proved particularly special for Breeden, since he didn’t just defeat Chestnut, he defeated everybody … in history. His five pounds and two ounces consumed in six minutes constituted a new world record, which still stands—and he’d never eaten a single cheese curd in his life before the contest. He also holds the world record for milk and cookies, consuming 48 Oreos and half a gallon of milk in two minutes and 28 seconds. And he once held yet another world record by eating 70 tamales in 10 minutes, though that mark was eclipsed in 2019.
Yet while those contests might get some play in local or state media, the Nathan’s contest is a different beast entirely. Broadcast live on ESPN to an audience of more than 1 million viewers, for most of America, it’s the only competitive-eating contest in existence. “Orange is a very small town,” Breeden says of the municipality with a population less than 5,000, “so for someone there to be on ESPN is pretty cool.”
Do those other contests help him prepare for the hot-dog-eating contest? Actually, no, he says. Different foods can vary so much in texture and consistency that at times eating competitions are like entirely different events, akin to how the Olympic gold medalist for the 100-meter dash never wins the marathon. This might explain why Chestnut has finished outside the top five in some contests, such as candy-eating.
“For milk and cookies, at least the cookies disintegrate with the milk. But nothing happens with candy. Candy corn was extremely hard—I was basically swallowing them whole like pills,” says Breeden. “The easiest in terms of technique was probably chili. It goes down so easy, almost like soup. You can get down an insane amount of volume.”
And the question everybody secretly wants to know but is afraid to ask: Has he ever vomited? Or, as it’s known in competitive eating parlance, experienced a “reversal of fortune”? “Not during the contest,” he says. “But afterwards.” Fortunately for him, doing so during the actual contest results in a disqualification, but after the closing bell—even a moment after—it’s all good. For your score, if not for your well-being. “There are always EMTs on site,” Breeden says, “so I’m not concerned.”
When he’s not eating
Breeden’s most famous rival, Chestnut, actually earns a full-time living from competitive eating through a combination of prize money, sponsorships, and appearance fees. Breeden has not opted for that route, instead working as a CTE (career and technical education) teacher at Orange County High School, home of the Hornets. He’s working to increase his fame through his YouTube channel and other social media, though he says he doesn’t make enough to hire a video editor, so he does all the editing and production work himself.
The potential upside is enormous. Stonie, despite actually being ranked one spot below Breeden in the rankings, commands 13.6 million YouTube subscribers, with his most-viewed video, “Epic Chili Cheese Fries!! (10,120 Calories),” amassing 94 million views. Breeden’s own most popular video, with nearly a million views, is the instructional guide “HOW TO CHUG FAST! CHUG LIKE A BOSS!”
In his free time, he enjoys off-roading on his motorcycle, exercising, playing guitar (he used to be a member of a local rock band called Half Breed), and, of course, eating out (favorite NoVA restaurant: Iron Age Korean Steak House in Annandale). He also likes going to the movies and loads up on popcorn at the concession stand. With butter? “Absolutely.”
While some significant others might recoil at the reason for Breeden’s claim to fame, his girlfriend, Caroline Freeman, “supports me 100 percent,” Breeden says. Although he admits that her original naivete may have helped in their relationship’s early days: “When we first started dating, she didn’t know competitive eating was a thing.”
Has anyone ever tried to get him to quit? Tons of people, he says, including a fair share of relatives. “I’m the only crazy one in my family. Everyone else is normal,” he says with a laugh. “My dad kind of eats a little more than average, though not like in a contest. But I don’t see myself doing this a long time. Although,” he pauses, considering the possibility, “Richard LeFevre is in his 70s.” The 76-year-old retired CPA, currently ranked No. 19, holds the records for eating Spam, corn dogs, huevos rancheros, and Tex-Mex rolls.
So does Breeden ever eat hot dogs just for fun?
“Well, I don’t dunk them in water for fun,” he answers, referring to the widespread competition technique of breaking the frankfurters in half, dunking the buns in water to soften them, and eating the bread and meat separately. “But yeah, I’ll eat hot dogs for fun. Deck it out Chicago-style.”