This Sunday, in Chicago, sports fans had plenty to be excited for. Nearly 20,000 fans filled the United Center to watch the Blackhawks try to topple Nashville for the second straight day. Bulls’ fans had their eyes toward Detroit hoping for another strong showing heading into the postseason. And Notre Dame fans and alum waited anxiously for the nightcap to see if sensational Skylar Diggins could lead the Notre Dame women past vaunted UConn. Overlooked on a bustling corner in River North, however, stood a true test of grit and perseverance. It was the RA Sushi Showdown.
My only experience with eating contests has been watching in awe and disgust at the July 4th Nathan’s Hot Dog Contest. In other words, I have none. Eating a ton of seafood, though, now that’s a different story. In the little town of Lower Burrell, PA was my ideal restaurant. That is to say, it was cheap and all-you-can-eat. My friends and I would arrive fifteen minutes before the dinner buffet came out so we could take advantage of the lunch prices, but still get the unlimited crab legs. We ate so much crab we thought the “Deadliest Catch” guys didn’t work hard enough. My removal of the meat from the legs became borderline surgical. Once, our hungover friend had to leave and puke outside just from watching our sickening display.
The only shortcoming I had with eating was speed. I was the last to finish at every group dinner I’ve ever been to. My excuse was always that I talked the most. If I just stopped enjoying everybody’s company, I’d finish first. This was my chance to prove the doubters wrong.
RA Sushi did a great job hosting the event, but I did not appreciate the mind games they played with me as the contest approached. First, they emailed the contestants a video of four human garbage disposals devouring uncut rolls of sushi like they were snacking on French fries. Maybe this was supposed to be motivational, but seeing "Pretty" Petey Jackson eat 8 & 3/4 sushi rolls to the accompaniment of heavy metal music gave me more nightmares than confidence. It made me feel like less of a man, like these animals would sniff me out and chew me up faster than their Tootsy Maki.
When the day arrived, I was completely shaken. It was akin to what the 18 year olds in the Final Four the night before must've felt, I'd narcissistically imagine. At least RA had a full bar to calm the nerves. Then the lunch bell rang. It was time.
The head games resumed. They put a plate of all five sushi rolls in front of you just to overwhelm you. The amount of food is in a comical juxtaposition with the one tiny cup of water allowed for the round, so small it's typically reserved for mouthwash. Then the referee calmly began his review of the rules by pointing out the location of the puke buckets. Oh great, it's right next to me. How convenient.
I asked my gangly competitor to the right, "Is this what you were expecting when you signed up? You prepared at all?" He giggled and replied, "Me, no. No way. My friends convinced me to sign up like 15 minutes ago." Wow, sweet. Exactly what I was hoping for. My confidence came roaring back. I was going to demolish these five rolls, advance to the championship round, then who knows. I could be hosting date nights on some fine RA Sushi for a year. I asked the same to the stone-faced competitor to my left. Without blinking, he replied, "Yes. Yes, I know what I'm doing." Crap, I'm screwed.
GO! DJ Bobby Lite started the music. I have no idea what it was because I lost all my 3 of my senses like Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan. I was focused only on the uncut roll of sushi before me. I grabbed it like a churro and started going to town. Forty-five seconds in and the first roll was down. Wow, I surprised myself. I'm feeling good. Let's roll! (pun intended)
The next forty-five seconds went by more quickly. We are now halfway through the round, and I've only eaten half of my second roll. I suppose I got a little too comfortable. Right as I was about to get back to business, my focus was broken by a coughing noise to my right. My gangly, spontaneous neighbor really didn't have any idea what he was in for. His mouth was inflated like a puffer fish and water was shooting out in tiny spurts. I mentally screamed curse words while physically moving away from the puke bucket. I might lose, but I am NOT going home with some skinny dude's spittle. False alarm, my gangly neighbor composed himself. Relief turned to panic when the referee shouted, "50 seconds left!" Two rolls down, and I scanned the table to analyze where I stood. What?! I'm beating all six guys in my field of vision, even the stone-faced guy with intimidating answers. HA! Take that confident guy! My esophagus was backed into a corner, and I chomped like hell in a sprint to the finish.
Times up, rolls down. In a mere three minutes, I finished 2 & 3/4 rolls and I had all the plates in my field of vision beat. I was anxious as hopeful as the referee determined the final standings. Welp, apparently my field of vision wasn't wide enough because the three winners came from the complete opposite end of the table, with third eating three and a half rolls. At least I could be proud I gave it my best! (Fine, I'm sugarcoating. I failed, the doubters were right, and my mom cackled while telling me I was a disappointment.)
The Championship Round
The six men who advanced were better that day. The crowd grew tense with anticipation. Now mingling with the spectators, I was immersed in the scuttlebutt. Spectators were impressed with a select few, and for moments our analysis and predictions were equally intense to discussing the NCAA tournament.
The stakes were raised for the title. Five minutes and ten Tootsy maki rolls lay between these iron men and eternal glory (Or diarrhea. Fate is dichotomous). The smart money was on the standing guy on the far right. Along with an impressive showing in Round 1, this guy had technique. He went through sushi seeming to never chew once, getting through the round hopping, gyrating his diaphragm and massaging his throat. Watching this display was like watching ribbon dancing: I assumed it was perfect because I had no idea what was going on.
The second contender put on a show in the first round with four sushi rolls down. His raucous friends also helped draw the attention to him. If the standing inflatable flailing arm tube man was the hare in this race, this guy was the tortoise. Everybody was breaking sweat and trying to move fast, and he just ate one huge bite after one huge bite while barely blinking an eye. I got the strange feeling this was just his normal eating routine while watching Sportscenter.
But nobody could compare to our champion, Cliff Wagle.
Cliff couldn't have been kinder in letting me speak with him for a few minutes after the competition. His focus was impressive, admitting he never noticed a single gesticulation by the standing guy nor the "EAT! EAT! EAT!" chant that shook RA. He only focused on where he stood and not getting sick to his stomach. "O yea, I knew where the puke bucket was. I actually pulled it closer," Cliff admitted.
Despite going on several dates with his girlfriend, Claudia to RA, he hardly knew how to attack his plate. "I planned on not drinking any water, at first, because I thought it would fill me up quicker. After the first couple bites, though, I figured out I had to." So with the nerves and lack of practice, how did Cliff find himself atop the Sushi Everest? "Just prepared my whole life by eating as much as I can. You don't get this gut for nothing."
Cliff's gut paid him back on Sunday. Tip of the cap to RA Sushi for hosting an awesome day. After stuffing his face with nearly 10 rolls of sushi in 8 minutes, many assume sushi would bring more trauma than joy, but Cliff assures me he and Claudia will enjoy every one of his free meals over the next year.
Man conquered sushi, at least until next April.