Lord of the Wings

It's grown from a silly little radio stunt into Philadelphia's grandest, goofiest spectacle — a sauce-smeared rival to the Mummers Parade. But could Wing Bowl be losing its soul? Its greatest champion doesn't care. He's just hungry for revenge

All he wanted was to retire. With some dignity. With a little bit of grace.

A year ago, Bill "El Wingador" Simmons wanted to retire on top of his game, which is the eating of chicken wings in massive quantities. If everything had gone as planned, Simmons would have walked away from competitive eating, Nexium bottle in hand, as the five-time wing champion of Philadelphia.

Last January 30th, when Simmons competed in his sixth Philadelphia Wing Bowl, he’d already won it four times. Four times he’d out-gluttoned his competition; four times he’d swallowed more chicken wings in 30 minutes than any 43-year-old man with two young daughters and a wife really ought to. No one else had even won it three times. Four would have been okay, except, well, five was such a nice round number, and his buddies had been goading him on. "You gotta do five," they’d say, "you gotta do five … "

So Simmons obliged. He came, he saw, he ate some chicken wings. He ate fast and hard, stripping the two-bone wings with a quick scissor motion and gobbling the drumsticks like pieces of corn on the cob. It was his A-game.

After 30 minutes, it was over. And there at the Wachovia Center, in front of 24,000 drunken, screaming fans — many of whom had gotten up at 5 a.m. to get decent seats — the unthinkable had happened. Simmons, all 322 pounds of him, had only eaten 151 wings, three short of his previous year’s total.

He’d come in at third place, two wings short of the top two finishers: Ed "Cookie" Jarvis, a fat realtor from Long Island, and the eventual winner in overtime, a 99-pound ­Korean woman, Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas, from Virginia.


When Angelo Cataldi, co-host of sports radio station 610 WIP’s morning show and Wing Bowl’s grand pooh-bah, announced the final tally, Bill looked up at the stands and saw his two daughters, and they were crying, his daughters, and his wife Debbie was yelling at the security guards, and then the reporters started crowding around him until he had to swipe his giant mitts at the cameras to get them away, and he just felt this … rage …

Simmons, who has the fleshy build of an offensive tackle and the bleach-blond hair of a professional wrestler, pulled himself together. He wiped his sauce-smeared mouth, walked over to his conqueror, and kissed her on the cheek. Congratulations, he said. Good luck next year. Hell, he says now, it’s just a chicken-wing-eating contest. What’s he gonna do.

But there are times, times like this humid July evening at Simmons’s home in Woodbury Heights, New Jersey, when he’s not so sure. When he remembers all the things about that day that just seemed weird. Like the fact that whenever he looked up at the Jumbotron, which broadcast close-ups of all the eaters, it looked like Thomas was leaving meat on the bone. And the fact that Simmons was sure he deserved credit for at least 180 wings, not a measly 151. Bill can’t prove any of this, but to him, that doesn’t matter. Wings are his thing, his turf. People may think he’s a sore loser, but he knows he won. "The first year I won, I ate 113," he says. The last year he won, he ate 154. "HowthehellIgodowntoonefiftyone? YouknowwhatImean?"