Newton County resident Ben Griffith competes in an environment that features opponents with names like "Eater X," "Erik the Red," "El Toro," "Skinnyboy" and "Jaws."
But Griffith isn't a professional boxer or wrestler. He's a competitive eater, an up-and-comer in what many deem a rapidly emerging sport.
The 29-year-old Griffith, known on and off the eating-contest circuit as "Turtle," has but a brief history in the game of contested digestion, but he has already posted some impressive numbers.
Earlier this summer, Griffith took part in a qualifier for the annual Nathan's Famous Hot Dog competition, which culminates on the Fourth of July ESPN broadcast from Coney Island. At the qualifier, held at Lenox Square in Atlanta, Griffith ate 10 hot dogs in 10 minutes and finished in fourth place, out of contention for the finals.
"I was a little out of shape," he said. "It's a matter of on any given day at any given time how you are prepared."
While there are those who find competitive eating distasteful and still others that are hardly aware of its existence, the activity is cutting a wide swath through American culture. Besides the Nathan's Famous events, professional eaters vie for prize money and other perks in competitions involving foods like Krystal hamburgers, strawberry shortcake, barbecued ribs, asparagus, chicken wings and Waffle House waffles.
There are two major organizations that organize and regulate eating contests, the International Federation of Competitive Eaters (IFCE) and Major League Eating (MLE). Some of the better-known competitive eating combatants include the iconic Takeru "The Tsunami" Kobayashi (the diminutive Japanese native who held the Nathan's Famous title for six years) and Joey "Jaws" Chestnut (who has bested Kobayashi at the last two hot dog high noons).
A 1997 graduate of Salem High School who works as district manager for the Rockdale Citizen, Griffith is working his way up the ladder, but an arm injury kept him from contests throughout most of 2007. He recorded some notable numbers in 2006, finishing fourth - ahead of a several of the IFCE's Top 50 - at the Waffle House Waffle Eating Championships at Stone Mountain, which was his first professional competition.
"The top three people got prize money, and I think first place got something like $5,000," said Griffith, who downed nearly 10 waffles in 10 minutes, but came up short of Chestnutt's contest-winning 18 waffles in 10 minutes. "I thought I had prepared myself, but I never actually practiced with waffles. I was actually ahead of Joey Chestnutt for five quick ones, but he told me later, 'You hit the wall early.' But my adrenaline was really pumping - I wanted to prove myself."
Griffith, who was subsequently recognized on the IFOCE Web site for his prodigious consumption of waffles, also took part in a couple of 2006 Krystal Square Off World Hamburger Eating Championship qualifiers, eating 24 Krystal hamburgers (with no mustard, onions and pickles - just burger and bun) in eight minutes in Gwinnett County and then 18 in eight minutes at a similar contest in Perry.
He has plans to vie again for the Krystal Square Offs (now in its fifth year), which holds its championship finals in late September on the banks of the Tennessee River in Chattanooga. Griffith has a unique way of preparing for a Krystal-sponsored event.
"I'll start about a month in advance," he said. "I'll buy a couple of sack-fulls - 24 - and practice. I'll bring them home and practice with a stopwatch."
Competitors at the Nathan's Famous hot dog event are often seen dipping their food in water before eating it, and Griffith explains the liquid helps shrink the bun, which enables an entrant to stuff more in his mouth, and adds he doesn't always utilize the method due to his ability to swallow foods whole.
And even after the intense relationship Griffith has developed with Krystal hamburgers in the intestinal arena, he still enjoys eating the tiny burgers when he's not in training.
"I guess I'll eat at Krystal once or twice a month," he said. "They taste a little different from the restaurant than they do in competition."
An Illinois native who's lived in the east metro area for two decades, Griffith said he always liked to eat a lot and he liked to eat it fast.
My parents always said, 'Slow down, chew your food,'" he said. "But I guess it's just part of my makeup."
Griffith entered his first competition three years ago at a hot dog-eating contest at the Conyers Cherry Blossom Festival at the Georgia International Horse Park. He slammed 11 hot dogs in three minutes to walk away with the grand prize, although he admitted he didn't really know what he was doing.
"I never really practiced," he said. "I'd seen Kobayashi and even though he's small, he can eat a lot of food in a short period of time. I'd watched eaters and their techniques. When I saw there was a contest at the Cherry Blossom Festival, I thought that was something right up my alley."
He entered the hot dog eating-contest the next year at the festival and again came away victorious (downing 10 dogs in three minutes) and immediately finished second in a cherry pie-eating contest.
"That's when I decided to get serious about it," he said.
Griffin, who lives with his wife of five years Brittany and 4-year-old daughter Hannah, said his family is supportive of his gift for the chomp. He said he generally eats one meal a day, with a few snacks included.
"If I ate all the time like I did to get ready for a competition, there's no telling how big I'd be," he said. "I go back to normal eating after a competition."
He added that his favorite meal is "a good ribeye with broccoli and a salad."
And while he's still the first person at the table to finish, he likes to take it slow.
"I'll eat a steak a little slower, but it seems like I still eat at a fast pace," Griffith said. "I'm usually done and waiting for everybody else."
Chris Starrs is a freelance writer based in Athens, Ga. If you have a story idea, contact Karen Rohr, features editor, at email@example.com.