“Sometimes in the projectile process, we become the object of that projectile.” —Angelo Cataldi, Jan. 30, 2015
It’s Jan. 26, 2001, and Matt “Sloth” Dutton has just consumed dozens of chicken wings in minutes. He doesn’t know it, but in just a moment he’s about to immortalize himself. His eyes glaze over and Dutton flashes the thousand-yard stare that’s graced the face of countless competitive eaters before him. He sits up straight, his clean-shaven face impressively unstained by orange sauce. In an instant his cheeks puff and his head bows.
What happens next should be unsurprising to anyone who’s been watching Dutton cram biblical quantities of chicken into his face at breakneck speed and yet, the meat geyser that sprays from Sloth’s mouth is astonishing. The force is so great it seems to propel Dutton up out of his chair. Sloth is a hero, and he knows it. Fourteen years later, Sloth’s Old Faithful-style emesis is now referred to as the “Reversal of Fortune” and it is, perhaps, the seminal moment in the event’s sordid 23-year history.
For many, Sloth’s regurgitative tour de force is a nightmare that’s guaranteed to tickle one’s own gag reflex. But for tens of thousands of Philadelphians every year, his torrent is a cultural touchstone: a reason to create an unofficial holiday, congregate with friends, defy the body’s circadian rhythms, and quite nearly drown oneself in booze.
The result is the annual rite of gluttony and debauchery that is the Philadelphia Wing Bowl. Here are the basics: It’s a competitive eating contest (two 14-minute rounds, followed by a two-minute sprint round), it’s held inside a sold-out NBA/NHL arena and broadcast live by 94 WIP, a Philadelphia sports radio station. It takes place at the asscrack of dawn on the Friday before the Super Bowl (lots open at 4 a.m. for tailgating, gates at 6:00 a.m., and it’s all over by 9:45 a.m.). And it’s an infamous city tradition that, in many ways, has come to define what it means to be from Philly.
Those inside and surrounding the city limits are intimately familiar with the spectacle of the Wing Bowl. For many, attendance is more than a point of pride; it’s proof of citizenship. Growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, I’d heard tales of the event’s 4 a.m. tailgates and scantily clad strippers and debauchery so many times that I recounted them as my own in college to prove myself as a true Philly native to my non-local friends. The truth is I never actually attended. It’s a lie that I continued to perpetuate even with my colleagues as I planned a trip to attend this year’s bacchanal. Let me be clear that I am not proud of this.
The point being: this lowbrow, binge-eating, binge-drinking, unabashedly sexist, blindingly white-and-male shitshow courses through the DNA of Philadelphia the same way that Patriots’ Day and the marathon does in Boston and Mardi Gras does in New Orleans. For better or worse, the Wing Bowl is a defining piece of the city’s culture: a raw and unapologetic ritual that separates its most dedicated locals from temporary residents. It’s rude and off-putting and fuck you if you don’t like it because clearly you’re not from around here.
But in recent years, some of the Wing Bowl’s defining traditions — drinking to the edge of oblivion, peer-pressuring women in attendance to flash the crowd on the Jumbotron, and fighting in the stands — have come under scrutiny from a growing legion of onlookers who struggle with the idea of celebrating sexual harassment, gluttony, and violence in 2015. Indeed, the event — which feels like the spawn of a wayward mating experiment between The Best of The Howard Stern Show and the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest — has received appeals from outlets like Philadelphia Magazine to change its ways or, at the very least, get rid of the “Can Cam,” a Jumbotron custom where cameramen spot and zoom in on the chest of almost any woman in attendance. Oh, and it’s sponsored by Miller Lite!
So, in its 23rd year, I decided to return home in an attempt to earn my Philadelphia citizenship and try to see if Wing Bowl can or should be saved (or if it needs saving at all).
Thursday, Jan. 29, 2015
4:49 p.m.: It’s the afternoon before the Wing Bowl, and there are strippers everywhere at the pre-event weigh-in, which takes place at a local sports bar. While the event itself is sponsored by 94 WIP, the competition’s 27 contestants are almost exclusively sponsored by area gentlemen’s clubs. Inside the bar, the exotic dancers travel in packs determined by their place of work. Stripper gangs. Each faction is wearing some variation of their club’s logo emblazoned on “stripper-casual” outfits — tiny shorts and crop tops. Like me, they look overwhelmed and confused. A man in only a diaper wearing a Santa hat walks past me casually. It’s not quite dark yet outside.
6:20 p.m.: As I enter the back room where the contestants have gathered, each in their own booth (which double as pre-weigh-in holding pens), I can’t distinguish the eaters from the entourages, or the spectators, for that matter. I meet Dimitri, whose competition name is Ukraine Train, and his unofficial manager, Felix. Dimitri is quiet and polite. The competition is 12 hours away and he still needs to get some materials for his float (there is a pre-competition parade where each contestant, flanked by friends, family, and strippers, marches around the arena on a homemade float. What a country!) and somehow find time to squeeze in a nap. I ask Felix how he became Ukraine Train’s Don King. “It’s an excuse for me and my friends to come and participate in this whole thing,” he tells me. “My wife wouldn’t let me go anymore unless I was in it or found somebody to be in it. So I found Dimitri. Really, it’s just a way for my old friends I never see to get together every year and have some beers.” I wish them both luck.
6:54 p.m.: Al, a college softball umpire who goes by the name of Luv Handles, is missing a front tooth, which he lost while training for the wing-eating contest. Yes, Luv Handles jammed a chicken wing into his face so hard that he lost a tooth. At 265 pounds, Luv Handles has a head that looks carved from mashed potatoes and the most infectious personality in the whole damn bar. “I’m all butt and guts,” he says turning into profile and jutting out his rear while caressing his magnificently curved potbelly. He’s flanked by his best friend, who proudly tells us he’s known Al for 40 years.
Luv Handles seems to have been waiting for this moment all his life, which as he tells me hasn’t been easy (his daughter’s struggle with addiction has left him and his wife to raise their 5-year-old grandson). “But I have fun, you know?” he shrugs. “You make mistakes in life and you move on.” He puts his arm around his friend, who just moments earlier pulled out a set of false teeth to play a practical joke on Al (“I lost them to cancer, so I figure I might as well have fun with them!”). With mere hours until the competition’s 6 a.m. start, Al’s only regret appears to be that he won’t be able to get shitfaced like he did last year. After a moment of reflection, he laughs, “I guess I’ll just have to get shitfaced after!”
Luv Handles is as Philly as they come, and I hope he wins this whole damn thing.
9:49 p.m.: I pile into the elevator of the Philadelphia Stadium Holiday Inn, a hotel that quite literally sits in the middle of the Philadelphia Sports Complex’s parking lot, minutes away from where tomorrow’s wing orgy will take place. A man in his mid-fifties in Philadelphia Eagles gear engages my two female co-workers in conversation. “Here for the Wing Bowl?” They reply in the affirmative. “First one?” he says with a cocked eyebrow. They reply in the affirmative. A moment passes in silence. “You girls gonna show your tits tomorrow?” he asks with an earnest timbre reminiscent of a Barbara Walters interview. Between nine and twenty years pass in silence as our elevator climbs to the fourth floor.
Friday, Jan. 30, 2015
4:31 a.m.: Here’s a tweet I posted:
4:54 a.m.: In the pre-dawn darkness the lots of the Wells Fargo Center feel unlike any professional sporting event tailgate I’ve attended. There’s an electricity in the air, but there’s an uncomfortable, foreboding darkness to it that makes it feel almost more like a refugee camp than a parking lot. People are drinking. A lot. Tendrils of grill smoke curl toward the black, icy sky. I approach a group of college students, notepad in hand and ask them how long they’ve been drinking. They ask me if I’m a cop and motion for me to leave.
5:37 a.m.: Fifteen men pile out of a U-Haul chugging beers and hard liquor. Inside the cargo bay are a dozen folding chairs. “We all get in the back and drink and drive around,” one of the U-Haulers notes. One of my co-workers asks if they’ve ever gotten in trouble for it and the U-Hauler flashes a badge. “We’re cops in New Jersey!” the U-Hauler guffaws before offering us a shot of Patron. The sun will not officially rise for another 105 minutes.
6:08 a.m.: Now inside the Wells Fargo Center, the voice of Angelo Cataldi, WIP’s morning radio jockey and one of the voices of Wing Bowl, fills the arena. He welcomes us to the event with a reassuring benediction: “We have no idea what we’re doing. We’re just hoping at 9:15 we’ll have a champ and everyone will make it out alive.”
6:15 a.m.: A rough estimate suggests the stadium is almost half full. The two-piece velour sweatsuits flow like wine. In my immediate field of vision I see a young man slumped in his seat, vanquished by the tailgate. Not nine hours ago, professional athletes skated on the ice beneath my feet. Now that same ground is littered with mashed up pieces of hot dogs and Mardi Gras beads. The goosebumped flesh of weary strippers jiggles in all directions. The Jumbotron prepares to show the first of many clips of Sloth’s 2001 “reversal of fortune.” Cataldi instructs first-timers to get out of the way of wayward vomit by dispensing this sage piece of advice: “Sometimes in the projectile process, we become the object of that projectile.”
6:20 a.m.: Luv Handles parades into the arena, flanked by family and strippers. He sports a smile so wide I fear it may split his face in two. The announcers criticize his entourage for its lackluster entrance into the arena but Luv Handles can’t hear them. Sitting on his float, which doubles as a throne, Luv Handles is King. He throws free T-shirts over the hockey boards to the plebes in the audience because they used to be him, once upon a time. Not today.
6:39 a.m.: My neck hurts. Every 10 minutes a deafening chorus of boos thunders from the stands, causing me to wrench my head back from my spot on the arena floor to watch 25,000 voting-age males harass women to offer a flash of their bare chests. “The Can Cam is the lifeblood of this event,” Cataldi says after a particularly chesty round of the Cam. The crowd roars.
6:59 a.m.: This happened:
7:57 a.m.: It’s the middle of the first 14-minute round. Some of the best wing eaters in the world are here, including the 120-pound former Wing Bowl champion, Molly Schuyler, who ate 363 wings last year. But I have no time for pros. My eyes are glued to Luv Handles, who just finished his first plate of 10 wings. He’s quiet, the very opposite of flashy. His strippers, who are lined up behind him, leaning in as if to use their cleavage as a back support, are cheering him on without the slightest traces of irony. They want him to win. He is methodical, but he is slow. Even I can see that his chances aren’t good.
8:03 a.m.: “Sweet Caroline” pipes through the arena loudspeakers. Luv Handles stands up mid-wing and fist-pumps to the first “ba-ba-bah.” This is Luv’s world and we’re all just living in it.
8:04 a.m.: A local and veteran Wing Bowl-er named Ice Man, who looks like somebody’s grandfather, has his mouth full to the brim with drippy wing meat. The entire arena watches his neck and throat unblinkingly as it begins to undulate. On cue, the Jumbotron plays looped footage of Sloth’s “reversal” as Ice Man looks up. In one move, he swallows the wing meat, rolls his eyes at the camera, and waves off the crowd as if to signal that he was a professional. “Act like you’ve been there before,” I think I see him mouth. I can’t be sure, but I hope that’s what he said.
8:13 a.m.: A UPenn student named Stormin’ Norman crushes over 90 wings in the first round, making him the college champion. He can now choose to take his prize (a brand-new car) or continue on with the pros, where he will surely win nothing but an ulcer. He wisely chooses the car.
8:17 a.m.: This happened:
8:32 a.m.: We’re in the second round — Luv Handles lost out on the top 10 by a single wing — and one eater named Qwazy is wing drunk. Reading his lips, I see him tell the ref, “I’m gonna boot,” to which the ref replies, “I don’t care.”
8:40 a.m.: I’m three feet from the reigning champion, Molly Schuyler, who is putting down a wing every 1.5 seconds. There are some things you shouldn’t see from three feet away.
8:42 a.m.: While the competition builds to its climactic finish, the Can Cam, seemingly following a new censorship directive, begins to cut away from women before they can expose their breasts. Boos rain down from the cheap seats. Between songs from the house band, you can hear the slurred screams of overserved jabronis who’ve been denied nipples. The crowd is restless as a Foo Fighters cover from the house band echoes through the arena. For first time I am overcome by the feeling that something terrible could happen if the collective drunkenness and sleep deprivation of the crowd is used for evil.
8:58 a.m.: The competition ends. Molly Schuyler is dethroned by another competitive eater, Patrick Bertoletti. From my vantage point near the stage I can hardly tell who won in the organizational mess. I try to make my way to the winner but I see Luv Handles from across the stage. His eyes light up. All told, Luv put down 95 wings in 14 minutes, a figure of which he is proud. “I’m glad I stopped when he did because I might have hurled,” he confesses. I ask him what he plans to do next. “I’m starting to belch,” he replies, “which is good because it sure helps a lot.” I ask if he’ll be back next year. “Damn right I will,” he says. “But for now, I’m gonna go home with everyone and go drink.”
As patrons file out of the arena under the newly risen winter sun, a battle-worn attendee expresses his frustration at what he’s calling “the worst Wing Bowl ever.” He blames heightened security — “they cracked down hard, man” — and a skittish Can Cam destroying the city’s time-honored tradition.
Indeed, for all the hype, the event felt watered down in the worst possible way. Rather than discontinue the Wing Bowl’s unsavory Can Cam, the event organizers crudely censored it three-quarters of the way through the event. They significantly beefed up security personnel but still let belligerent and near-comatose spectators through the door. It’s the sort of halfhearted reform that insults those calling for change as well as the event’s sordid history.
The Wing Bowl is shockingly white, male, sexist, hedonistic, and, at times, violent. It affirms the worst stereotypes about class, race, and the city of Philadelphia. It is a backwards tradition tangentially linked to football’s biggest event that feels particularly troubling in the wake of the NFL’s domestic abuse issues. As Philadelphia Magazine noted, correct or not, it’s not hard to connect the sort of behavior celebrated at the Wing Bowl with a culture that still has years to go in how it looks at, values, and treats women.
And yet, somehow, buried deep inside all of that lies a tradition worth preserving. It’s what drew me so instantly to Luv Handles, and it’s what drives tens of thousands of hardscrabble human beings to stay up for days, take off work, and head to the sports complex in the middle of the night during the dead of winter. For a high-profile competitive eating event, there’s a surprisingly low barrier to entry — average local dudes can make it in (one guy ate two candles to qualify). To qualify, you can simply call up the station and suggest a stunt. If it’s approved, you go on air, and if you succeed, you punch your ticket.
After that, it doesn’t matter much what happens. For locals like Luv Handles, Wing Bowl elevates a collegiate umpire who, like any of us, has bills to pay and family crises to weather, to celebrity status. Google “Luv Handles and Wing Bowl” and you’ll see his face in multiple news articles as well as radio clips on the WIP website.
It’s hard to gain acceptance into Philadelphia as a local. I lived there for over a decade but always felt like a fraud saying I’m from Philly. But what instantly endeared me to the city, and what the Wing Bowl, at its best, preserves, is its very real, very raw humanity, which eschews any and all attempts at elitism and classism. It’s a city that treats Rocky like a documentary. A city where you can be inducted into a hall of fame for eating to the point of projectile vomiting. A city that, perhaps more than any other place I’ve lived or visited for an extended period of time, doesn’t just like an underdog, but actually values it.
Don’t get me wrong: The Wing Bowl is fucked up. I have serious reservations about the whole thing that give me pause when trying to articulate its merits. But for a ritual that seems to defy every politically correct sensibility, I’m not sure that Wing Bowl can be killed. And while I’m still conflicted, I’m not so sure that it should be killed. All the butt-and-guts, mashed-potato-faced Luv Handles of the world deserve their moment of glory. And, for all its many failings, Philadelphia is the one of the few cities that actually gives one to them.