The legend of Megatoad began with a five-pound burrito.
Matt Stonie was just a teenager when he took down the beast known as Burritozilla, and he did it mostly because he was bored. A year later, acting on a similar impulse, he entered a lobster roll-eating contest, ate 24 of them, and walked away with $1,000. Soon after, he got serious, and Megatoad – his eating alter ego, a name inspired by the Super Mario Bros. sidekick, not an oversized amphibian – was born.
Since then, Stonie has been on a masticatory march through the competitive eating circuit, winning events like the Niko Niko's World Gyro Eating Championship and the Three Rivers Festival Pepperoni Roll Contest, and setting world records for consuming birthday cake, frozen yogurt, gyoza, gyros and Slugburgers (which are not what they sound like).
At 22, he is ranked Number Two in the world by Major League Eating, maintains a YouTube channel where he posts his exploits (one clip, where he takes down Michael Phelps' 12,000-calorie training menu in 42 minutes, has been viewed 3.6 million times) and sells T-shirts for 17 bucks a pop. He is the millennial star the, uh, sport has been waiting for, and though he finds his celebrity amusing, Megatoad has relished playing the role of the upstart.
"I'm addicted to the crowd, the adrenaline; I've always been competitive, so I love beating the guy next to me," Stonie says. "I'm a quiet guy, so it's never been my thing to flaunt stuff. I just like going up on the stage and beating everybody. I'll let other people show off."
As he's risen up the MLE ranks, one man has become Stonie's constant foil: Joey Chestnut, eight-time Nathan's Hot Dog Eating champion and quite possibly the greatest competitive eater in the world. Joey Jaws has squashed the Megatoad at competitions like the World Twinkie Eating Championship and the Minnesota Zombie Crawl's Brain Taco Contest, and on July 4th, he outdueled him at Nathan's, devouring 61 dogs to Stonie's 56.
That one hurt. Especially since Stonie had managed to do what no competitor had done since the heyday of the great Takeru Kobayashi – hang with Chestnut for the entire competition. In fact, nine minutes into their 10-minute battle, the two were separated by a single dog…until Chestnut turned on the afterburners.
"It was the most gut-wrenching feeling ever. It was like if you're a runner, and you're in mile 25 of a marathon, and you feel your leg starting to cramp up," Stonie said. "I could feel him picking up the pace, and I started to feel a bit gross, and then it was over."
Still, Megatoad served notice that the gap between the two had closed considerably (at the 2013 contest, Stonie lost by 18 dogs), and the next weekend, at the Slugburger Festival in Corinth, Mississippi, he extracted a small measure of revenge, beating Chestnut by a burger. In doing so, he not only became a three-time champion in the event, but added another chapter to their budding rivalry.
"We're friends, sometimes we carpool [to events] together. I like the idea of giving Joey absolute hell in a competition, then going out five hours later and having a few beers with him," Stonie says. "But I would say since Kobayashi came, I'm the first guy who has made contests interesting for him. He's been pushed before, but he never sweat like he's sweating now."
And that rivalry is good news for Major League Eating, which has been searching for a challenger to Chestnut's dominance since Kobayashi left the league in 2010 after a contract dispute (he's still barred from competing and was arrested at that year's Nathan's contest for attempting to rush the stage). In Stonie, they think they've finally found their man.
"Matt could and probably will overtake Joey. There's no doubt he's gone to the next level," MLE chairman George Shea says. "From the beginning, he came at it in a way like 'I am going to beat Joey.' He's had a singular purpose, and he's executed on that. The people who can't stand losing don't.
"It's a generational thing," he adds. "There's a portion of our fans who are very attached to Joey, because he's the champion, but the kids are cheering 'Ston-ie! Ston-ie!' You're seeing a transition. He's clearly the future of eating."
Maybe so, but Stonie has a long way to go before he can match Chestnut in terms of commercial appeal (Shea estimates that Jaws takes home roughly $200,000 a year in prize money and sponsorships). But he's willing to put in the work. He's put his studies at Mission College on hold to focus full-time on competitive eating, and trains almost daily, whether that's in the gym, or the kitchen.
"It's not like a big secret; if you're a swimmer you jump in the pool and keep swimming, If you're a competitive eater, you cook up a bunch of food and keep eating," Stonie said. "Joey makes plenty of money, he's the guy, and I know the only way I'm every going to get to that point is to put in 100 percent effort."
And, after trading victories in hot dogs and Slugburgers, Stonie and Chestnut will go gullet-to-gullet at next Tuesday's Hooters Worldwide Wing Eating Championship in Las Vegas. Chestnut is the reigning champ, and there's more than $17,000 in prize money on the line…but for Megatoad, this one is about something more.
"It goes beyond winning. Why would anybody want to become a boxer? It's the competition. I want to win, I want to be the best at something," he says. "Also, if you asked anybody 'Hey, do you want to eat food for a living?' They'd say yes."