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The Krystalburger has always been the burger of competition. Meatheads have been stacking empty Krystal boxes into great, step-pyramid monuments to gluttony for years, ever since the square burger was born in Chattanooga back in 1932. Beanpole cross-country runners have also been known to suck down sacks-of-12 after practice. Its shape and size make it the perfect foodstuff when you’re in the mood for mass consumption.

With burgers so small and compact, it seems as though gluttony is encouraged. Sack of eight? What’re you, a daisy? Let’s see how many I can fit in my mouth —that’s a fairly common boast after a night of heavy drinking. Ever since these early, friendly competitions, Krystal-eating has become much more organized, and much more marketable as a curiosity-sport. It may be the fastest-growing event recognized by the International Federation of Competitive Eating (ICOP).

I recently met an up-and-coming gurgitator, and decided to follow his quest for gastrointestinal glory. His name is Kevin Crowe, a young, twentysomething nobody, who hopes to make a mark on the competitive eating circuit through sheer determination, and outlandishly inflated egomania. “It’s a Cinderella story,” Crowe explains, shrugging his shoulders when asked what his goals are.

“I’m gonna make Caligula’s excesses look like they belong in the kiddie-pool. I’m gonna do it 110-percent, turn it up a notch, know what I’m saying? Gonna push it to the limit, take it one at a time, stay focused, give it up to God, bring my A-game, dig deep, suck it up. It’s gonna be a war out there, a battle of the Titans. Records are made to be broken,” Crowe said, sloshing a pint glass all over his shirt. He added, after a dry-heave: “Sometimes, you just gotta use clichés like they’re going out of style.”

Crowe said that this is a competition that he has been training for “all his life.” He doesn’t look like a legit competitive eater, definitely not record-holder material. He’s got a little too much girth on him, too much to make a serious career out of intestinal fortitude. Perhaps you’ve heard about the dreaded “fat belt,” a pseudo-scientific term that explains why eaters like Sonya “Black Widow” Thomas, who only weighs 98 pounds, can eat 522 oysters in just 10 minutes. See, fat isn’t terribly elastic. Muscle, on the other hand, can be trained to stretch like a piece of saltwater taffy. That’s why the ultra-light Japanese gurgitators can stomach so much more than their oversized American competition.

Thomas has put down 250 tater tots in five minutes, 11 pounds of cheesecake in nine, 80 chicken nuggets in five, 60 hard-boiled eggs in seven and 62 Krystalburgers in eight.

Takeru Kobayashi, who has become something of a cult figure with his ability to stretch his stomach to alien limits, shocked the world back in 2004 when he ate 53 1/2 hotdogs at Nathan’s Famous Hotdog competition at Coney Island. Since then he has continued to shock and disgust us, sucking down 17.7 pounds of cow brains in 15 minutes, 20 pounds of rice in 30 and, perhaps most impressively, 69 Krystalburgers in eight.

“Those numbers don’t impress me,” Crowe explains. “Records are just guidelines, nothing more. Nothing to be scared of.”

Maybe the numbers didn’t impress him, but when he was standing at the Krystal on Cumberland Avenue for the two-minute qualifying round, surrounded by a small crowd of curious onlookers, it looked as though all of his big-talk amounted to nothing at all. He just stood there, sheepishly scanning the crowd, breaking every few seconds to take a cowardly sip of water. The rules were simple. You try to get as many Krystals down before time runs out; what goes down must stay down. If any Krystalburger tries to get out the way it came in, you’re disqualified. There’s not much else. Ready. Set. Square Off!

It was 9:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 15. The Strip was peopled with orange-clad football freaks, who were outlandishly liquored up and brutish. When the eating began, the crowd went wild, at least I think they went wild. They made a sound that was a bizarre mix of cheers and giggles, a cross between excitement and unmitigated disgust. It’s repugnant to watch if you’re a newbie. There’s no artistic merit, no real triumph either. The spectacle is just that, a spectacle, a freak show of the most base and uncivilized urges leftover in mankind’s collective psyche.

“Crowe’s got two,” the announcer yelled. “He was waiting for his cheering squad.” That’s when things got lame. Crowe just stood there, leisurely chewing his third burger. “You suck,” came an angry fan.

“Where’s that cheering section?” went the announcer.

“You can do it,” cried the drunk.

He ate four that night, falling well short of his projected 15. “Can’t take these guys lightly,” Crowe whined. “Can’t look past these guys. It’s a learning experience. Need to pull out all the traps, be more aggressive.”

He stumbled around the Krystal parking lot for several minutes, propped up by two supportive fans. “My cheering squad,” Crowe mumbled, almost indecipherably. “They let me down. They let me down—” He was last seen at the Urban Bar, unsteadily perched on a barstool, muttering non-sequiturs about politicos. The messages he left on my home phone the next morning begged me to skew his numbers, to make his pathetic attempt at least appear noble in print. “No one has to know,” he went on and on. “No one needs to know.”

Eating contests are a tribute to a vestigial caveman impulse to out-eat, out-drink and basically overwhelm the competition, to be able to pound your chest and turn hedonistic desires into half-baked sport. It’s Roman Emperor indulgence with a time limit.

“Put 20 Neanderthals in a cave, a rabbit comes in, and you got an eating contest,” said Ryan Nerz, who emceed the Krystal Square Off at the Tennessee Valley Fair this past Sunday. You may have seen Nerz on The Daily Show recently, plugging his new book, the aptly named Eat This Book , by explaining the finer points of competitive eating. Nerz was asked, “How hard do you have to work to make this thing seem legitimate?”

He parried the question by explaining that guys like Kobayashi will actually gain about 45 pounds in the months before a competition, then rapidly lose all those extra weight, which leaves the stomach and surrounding tissue stretched and ready to be filled with, say, 69 Krystalburgers. But the winner of Knoxville’s Square Off, Pat Bertoletti, says that he doesn’t have time to train rigorously. Not anymore, at least.

Bertoletti is currently ranked fourth in the world in ICOP standings, having made his presence felt after devouring nine pounds of fried okra in just 10 minutes. It sounds more impressive if you say that he ate about a pound of okra every minute for 10 minutes. He ate 48 Krystals in eight minutes on Sept. 17, setting a new Knoxville record, and he’s still one of the few eaters expected to give Kobayashi and Sonya “Black Widow” Thomas serious competition at the world championships in Chattanooga in October. With his average frame and Iroquois hairdo, he seems as though he’d be more at home at a dingy dive bar than onstage at a small town fair. He might look more comfortable in a post-punk band instead of eating enough Krystals to make corndog-chomping fairgoers reel back in disgust.

At the Tennessee Valley Fair, Bertoletti was joined by three other primo eaters. There was Larry “The Legend” McNeil, who placed fourth with 28 burgers. “Karaoke Kobayashi” Juris Shibayama, a medical doctor from Murfreesboro, finished in third with 34. And Arturo “The Natural” Rios took home the silver with 35, keeping pace with Bertoletti during the first four minutes of the competition.

This quartet was affectionately dubbed “The Four Horsemen of the Esophagus.”

“I’m appalled, astonished, flabbergasted and slightly terrified,” Nerz told the crowd, “and it’s only seven minutes into the competition…. If anyone suffers a ‘reversal of fortune,’ he will be disqualified.”

Also in attendance was Brad Chambers, a local phenomenon who schooled Crowe at the two-minute time trials. “His hair is almost as big as his stomach capacity,” Nerz said. Chambers was joined by Chris Tarpy, who ate an astonishing 15 Krystalburgers in two minutes. Then there was Jeff Hicks, who shocked the competitive eating world last year when he out-ate El Wingador of Philadelphia, the man who once ate 15 Taco Bell chicken burrito supremes in 28 minutes. Hicks finished seventh this year, with a respectable consumption of 22 Krystals, which only matched last year’s performance.

Other colorful personalities were onstage, too. We saw Anthony Mora, who once ate 11 bowls of Capt’n Crunch as a child. “Wild” Bill Myers gained notoriety after eating two loaves of unleavened bread in 1989. Then there was Paul Sakelarides, a type of eater known as the “buffet buster.” It’s reported that Sakelarides has been banned from a half-dozen buffets in the Hannover, Pa., area.

But the 20-year-old Pat Bertoletti will advance to “square off” against the best of the best in Chattanooga on Oct. 28. “Humble” Bob Shoudt qualified by eating 52 Krystalburgers in Nashville. Joey “Jaws” Chestnut also ate 52 at the qualifier in Jacksonville. But “The Black Widow” proved that competitive eating is an equal-opportunity sport when she destroyed 62 Krystals on Aug. 26, matching the American record.

The event will be televised on ESPN. I’m serious. ESPN. Nerz has said that the Krystalburger is the perfect sporting food, because it’s about the size of a hockey puck. It seemed like a silly comparison at the time, but maybe he’s on to something. Maybe this is the next great American pastime. Maybe we were too ashamed to admit it until now.