This Friday marks what’s become, for better or worse, a landmark day in Philadelphia culture. 610 WIP will be hosting their annual Wing Bowl which is somewhat of a cross between a chicken wing eating contest, the Mummers parade and a stripper competition.
One name synonymous with he event is El Wingador. Bill Simmons, as he was born, had his life turned upside down when his friend suggested he join a little known, but rapidly growing contest called Wing Bowl.
Now, 13 years later, he is an immortal amongst competitive eaters. He’s done TV, commercials, and even has his own food line out.
Three years into retirement, El Wingador has decided to make a comeback, going against his former mentee and defending champion Super Squibb when WIP takes over the Wells Fargo Center at 6 AM Friday, Feb. 4.
The five-time champion took some time to chat with me about how Wing Bowl has changed his life, eating cow brains, the secret to training for competitive eating and even the contents of his fridge.
SHAY RODDY: I’m interested in the history of Wing Bowl. The first one was held in a hotel for a crowd of 100 people, now it’s held at the Wells Fargo Center and 20,000 people are there. Wing Bowl was created to make a somebody out of a nobody, like the “Rocky” idea. You are the perfect example of that. Tell me how your life has changed since you started Wing Bowl.
EL WINGADOR: Well, I’m not allowed in all you can eat buffets anymore [laughs]. My life has changed big time. Before I was El Wingador, I was just a softball player playing all over the East Coast. I was pretty good and I was popular doing that.
Everyone always knew that I loved to eat. I never heard of Wing Bowl until Wing Bowl VII when I was asked to do it by “Heavy Keavy” who was the two-time champ at that point. I said, “man, I’m not going to stop eating wings.” My first one was at the Spectrum. I had heard all of the stories about the Electric Factory and the hotels and how it started out small. I think the first prize was a Hibachi.
I think I have a little bit to with that, as far as when I went to LA and did a show for FOX called “The Glutton Bowl” they brought in champs from all over the globe — Russia, Japan, Canada, England — everybody was there. People wanted to know what we were champions of and I told people chicken wings and they were like, “oh that’s easy. That’s easy.” So I said come on down.
SR: You ate cow brains on that show, didn’t you?
WINGADOR: For the finals, yeah, I had cow brains. But my preliminary eating competition was who can eat the most of a 15 foot piece of sushi. I had 5 feet, six feet of it in 30 minutes. I beat everybody.
SR: So you can eat anything, it’s not just chicken wings?
WINGADOR: Everyone was telling me you better try the sushi. I had never tried it. They said, “well you might not like it.” And I said I wasn’t even going to try it, I was just going to go and eat the damn thing. It’s mind over matter for me. Even with the cow brains. That kind of overwhelmed me because of the smell, it was just terrible. It smelled like bad feet. It was just bad. I ate ten pounds of it and just stopped. I couldn’t deal with the smell anymore.
SR: Super Squibb is the big thing now. Last year he just blew everyone else out of the water. You helped him prepare for, at least, last year’s Wing Bowl, didn’t you?
WINGADOR: Yeah, absolutely. I like the way he eats. He reminded me a lot of myself when I first saw him. I like the way he eats; he was just tearing it up. It was like looking at myself in the mirror, watching him eat. I gave him some pointers on strengthening his jaws with the Tootsie Rolls. I gave him a lot of pointers, but I didn’t tell him everything in case I wanted to jump back in.
SR: So this year you’re coming out of retirement, you haven’t eaten competitively, at least, in three years. What made you want to come back?
WINGADOR: The true story about why I wanted to come back is my four-year-old son, Sean, saw some footage of Wing Bowl from 2005 and he saw my daughter with me at Wing Bowl winning. There was a documentary called “Swallow Your Pride” — that’s what he saw. He said I want to come to Wing Bowl. I want to see you eat.
So I said to my wife, you know what I should go back, just one more time, just so he can see what Wing Bowl is and who El Wingador is. I’m coming out with a food line through Rastelli Direct. I wanted him to know where that all came from and to feel a part of it just like my other kids are.
SR: And you’re bringing him this year?
WINGADOR: Yeah. Listen, we’ve got the best float. We had master wood workers work on this thing. They made my body and they routed the name ‘El Wingador’ in the wood. For him, personally, it’s a pretty sharp looking thing. Kobayashi is going to be riding out in the float with him as well. That’s going to get a lot of attention. It’s going to be very neat. It’s pretty sharp, very professional, and a thing a lot of heads are going to be turning.
The company building it is called CF Construction. They do a lot of solar work. I’m part of them, I kind of fell solar a little bit and my buddy started the business, he said let me build your float, I’ll do a great job and this thing is amazing. My plan is to auction this thing off and raise the money for a charity. This thing has to be worth about five or six grand.
WINGADOR: I’m telling you, this thing is amazing, man. It’s going to win the Waechter Cup [awarded to best float; named for long time morning show producer Joe Waechter].
SR: You don’t have any reserves about bringing him? It’s a little bit more than an eating contest…
WINGADOR: Well it’s a whole show. It’s the girls, it’s the float, it’s the processions. I think the eaters take a back seat to all that to be honest with you. It’s an indoor Mardi Gras.
SR: Yeah. I’ve never seen anything like it. I want to get back to Kobayashi too, he’s going to be there this year. I think more and more, Wing Bowl is being recognized nationally. Joey Chestnut who’s a famous professional eater has been in it a few times. This year there are some troubles with it not being sanctioned. But the fact that Kobayashi will be there, that Chestnut has competed in it says a lot about Wing Bowl and what you have done to build it from what it was at the Electric Factory or the Wyndham Franklin Plaza Hotel into what it is now.
WINGADOR: Well, I don’t know if I can say that I have built it into that.
SR: You were certainly a part of it…
WINGADOR: I guess a little bit. I’ve been on some shows or in some eating events where I have just spread the word about what I was involved with. It’s amazing, you’re right. It’s international now. You bring in Kobyashi, the best eater in the world. He’s done commercials and shows and eaten against bears and won hot dogs six times by unbelievable numbers. He’s blowing people out of the water. Now he’s at Wing Bowl. Last year we had Snooki, this year we have Kobyashi.
SR: Which one’s the bigger celebrity? That’s the real question.
WINGADOR: [Laughs] I think he has a little more history to him than Snooki. She’s just big with the show right now.
SR: Got to ask you, what is in El Wingador’s refrigerator?
WINGADOR: Well I can only tell you what’s in the front. There’s a lot of stuff in the back that I can’t see. Right now, there is a lot of juice, a lot of milk. I’ve got some defrosted salmon in there. I’m trying to steer my training regimen toward being more healthy. I eat a lot of salmon. There’s some left over pizza from my kids. There’s some pasta. There was chicken in there but it doesn’t really last too long. All my marinades, all my sauces are in the door. I love my marinades and my sauces. There’s some eggs. I eat six eggs over easy every morning with a piece of wheat toast, a banana and some almonds. You really have to root around in there. There’s a lot of stuff. A lot of Activia to keep my stomach balanced. [Laughs.]
SR: Describe your training regimen in the month leading up to Wing Bowl. I know you mentioned Tootsie Rolls. But let us in on what you do to get ready.
WINGADOR: Eating anywhere from 10-15 lbs of food every day.
SR: 10-15 lbs?!
WINGADOR: Yeah. Every day. I work out three days a week, two times a day. Then I eat the food. Then I work out at night for an hour and a half, two hours to burn those calories off. When I go to bed I don’t feel too bad to be honest with you. I’m eating all fresh foods and all natural chickens. I’m 49 years old. I can’t eat the pizzas, the cheesesteaks, the hoagies and all that stuff. I feel a lot better doing it with the good food.
SR: Have you tried, in the past three years, to try to eat anywhere near the amount you need to eat to win a Wing Bowl or is that something you never do and when you come in for Wing Bowl it’s the most you’ve eaten in your life?
WINGADOR: It’s not the most I’ve eaten in my life. I train harder than the event itself. So, the first one I got into I think I got lucky. I was loving the product and eating it up. But the competition got better. I had to eat the Tootsie Rolls to strengthen my jaws, so I just ate like 100 Tootsie Rolls. I eat 10 pounds of Tootsie Rolls per week. I could bite a table in half right now.
Wing Bowl is more about technique and speed. A lot of people can just shove a hot dog down their throat. Wings are different. You have to have a technique to strip the bones quick and get the meat off it. So no, it’s not the most I’ve ever eaten. You just have to eat a lot to make the second round. It’s a whole different animal to train for this. After you eat you just want to lay down, but I push myself to workout. It’s more of a mind thing with Wing Bowl.
I was telling my buddies, the first 14 minutes, the wings are good but in the second 14 minutes, you don’t even taste what you’re eating. You’re just shoving cardboard in your throat. You’re numb to what you’re eating. So it’s all mind over matter. I read a lot of books about brain fitness and mind over matter. It helps me in a lot of parts of life.
SR: Last question, El Wingador. How many wings will you eat Friday morning?
WINGADOR: I think it will take 250-260 to win it. I’d like to eat 260. I’d really love to eat 300. It depends on the size of the wings, the texture and the judging. … Angelo always wants a higher count, so he asks whoever cooks the chicken that year to see if they can get small wings, so the counts would be high.
You’re still eating 8-10 pounds of chicken, so it doesn’t matter. I’ve bit my hands trying to deal with some wings just stripping them as fast as I can and taking chunks out of my fingers. I have scars on my hands from it.
Programming Note: High Hopes will be at 610 WIP’s Wing Bowl 19, with video reports from Timothy Parker and Matthew Nadu, image galleries, and a story by Shay Roddy. Check back Friday for all of that.