First they crushed it in their fists.
Then they stuffed it in their mouths.
Then they swallowed, washing the hunks of food down with water or juice.
They then repeated the process.
For 10 minutes Saturday afternoon, 11 contestants — a woman and 10 men — consumed as much catfish filet as their mouths and stomachs could hold during the World Catfish Eating Championship at the Rhythm City Casino in Davenport.
The event featured some of the world’s top speed eaters, such as sixth-ranked Tim Janus, aka “Eater X,” of New York City, ninth-ranked Tim “Gravy” Brown of Chicago and 15th-ranked “Crazy Legs” Conti, also of New York City.
A couple of Quad-City region residents — Matthew Spahr, 36, of Davenport, and David Grimes, 32, of Monmouth, Ill. — got in on the act through contests hosted by Dwyer and Michaels of radio station WXLP-FM and by WQAD-TV.
In the end, it was 100-pound, 42-year-old fast-food restaurant manager Sonya Thomas, alias “The Black Widow,” of Alexandria, Va., who won the contest and $1,000 by eating 6.75 pounds of catfish.
And since it is believed to have been the first World Catfish Eating Championship ever held, Thomas established a world record.
Second place went to Janus, 33, who stuffed down 6.5 pounds of fish, winning $750. Brown, 31, came in third by chowing down five pounds of fish and got $500 for his efforts, while “Nasty” Nathan Biller, 28, of Wichita Falls, Texas, the 19th-ranked eater in the world, got $250 for fourth place by eating 4.25 pounds.
Before the event, Spahr, the Davenport contestant, stood with his wife Amy.
“I ate at 8 p.m. yesterday, just a very little bit,” he said.
“It’s something to do,” he added when asked why he entered the competition. “And I like catfish.”
“I told him I was making fish for dinner tonight,” his wife said with a straight face.
Grimes, who drove in from Monmouth, said he has some experience in competitive eating.
“I’ve done a chili contest and a pumpkin pie contest,” he said. He even won a sweet corn eating contest in West Point, Iowa, eight years ago.
He lost the chili contest by half a cup, he said, “because they allowed people to hurl. I’m a big proponent of no hurling.”
When the event began, the professional eaters grabbed, crushed and stuffed to the screams of a crowd of about 250 people, some of whom stopped gambling to watch the feeding frenzy.
Spahr tried to keep up with the pros while Grimes took his time, seemingly savoring his meal.
“I paced myself,” Grimes said afterward. “I had a good time. It was good catfish.”
“That was my debut as a major league eater,” Spahr said. “I’m going to have to stand down for a while.”
Isle of Capri Casinos Inc., which owns the Rhythm City, has established a partnership with the International Federation of Competitive Eating, also called Major League Eating, to host six competitive eating contests, said Elissa Plastino, the brand manager of Isle of Capri Casinos. Saturday was the second contest hosted by the Isle.
Each casino gets to choose the food the competitors will eat.
The first contest was held at the Isle’s Biloxi, Miss., casino, where peanut butter and banana sandwiches were served in honor of Elvis Presley’s 75th birthday.
The Isle of Capri Casino in Bettendorf will host an eating contest later this year at the Quad-Cities Waterfront Convention Center, Plastino added. The food that will be eaten there has yet to be determined.
Sport has evolved, pros say
“This used to be a big man’s sport, people 300-400 pounds or more,” Janus said.
These days, competitors come in all shapes and sizes, he said, adding that he is 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighs 165 pounds.
The bottom line is that size doesn’t matter, said Janus, who added that he has eaten “just about everything that’s been offered” at the competitions.
“It matters how much you can push yourself and how your body responds,” he said. “You have to have a professional attitude about it. Otherwise it’s disgusting.”
Catfish was a new one for him and for everyone else involved.
When it was all said and done, Thomas won the title over Janus by a mere quarter-pound.
“It was very close,” he said. “It was a tough contest. She won it fair and square.”
The catfish was moist, flaky and good, he added. “But when you try to eat a lot of it very quickly, it goes down slower than expected. I thought my numbers would be higher today. But it’s not the catfish’s fault.”
Thomas, who has been a competitive eater for seven years, said she never tasted her meal.
“When you’re eating fast, you cannot taste it,” she said. “You just swallow.”
Thomas flew into the Quad-Cities the day of the contest. “I came out ahead,” she said, looking at her $1,000 check. Then she turned around and flew back home Saturday because she has to work today — at a restaurant, of course.