THE WING BOWL is about "laying aside pretense and looking into the soul of a man," says

George Shea

, the president of the International Federation of Competitive Eating. The IFOCE grants a provisional sanction to the Wing Bowl, but does not oversee the event and is not involved with its judging. Shea says that five-time champion

Bill "El Wingador" Simmons

"is the purest wing eater I've ever seen. He has complete comfort with the wing, but El Wingador competing against [Joey] Chestnut is like Don Rickles playing golf against Tiger Woods." Shea believes that Wingador will be outdone not only by Chestnut, the reigning champ who competes in IFOCE events around the world, but also by Chicago's

Patrick Bertoletti

, who's expected soon in the WIP studios to try to qualify for Wing Bowl.

"I think this will be one of the most dramatic Wing Bowls ever," Shea predicts. "Wingador has something none of the other IFOCE eaters have. Passion. He has a passion for this event like most other eaters, but I don't think he can beat Joey."

U.S. Male poised to return

Shortly after competing in Wing Bowl 16, Dave "U.S. Male" Goldstein is off to Arizona for the Super Bowl. Goldstein turns 40 on Feb. 3, the day of the big game, but he's just as excited to return to Wing Bowl. He placed fifth last year and came in second among local eaters. Goldstein is sponsored by P.J. Whelihan's, the pub chain providing wings this year instead of Rib Ranch (Castor & Aramingo) which supplied them throughout most of Wing Bowl history. He's a postal carrier in Haddonfield, N.J. "I'm not shooting for No. 1," Goldstein says, noting this is "the best field in Wing Bowl history," with El Wingador and Joey Chestnut competing in the same contest. Last year, U.S. Male emerged from a seven-foot mailbox, but this year the Army and National Guard veteran is going for a military theme.

To train, the 6-1, 250-pound Goldstein has been eating several pounds of vegetables for dinner and drinking a gallon of water every morning. He's adopted a tip from El Wingador and is eating Tootsie Rolls for jaw strengthening. He works out five days a week. He's joined the IFOCE and has fared well in burrito and waffle bouts.

Goldstein loves the carnival of the Wing Bowl and apparently so does his father.

"My dad's a pervert. He went last year and sat right up front," Goldstein says.

The elder Goldstein is more interested in the scantily-clad hotties than in his son's eating. Goldstein is taking pledges for, a charity set up by Army ranger Chris Young, who battled thyroid cancer and now raises money to fight childhood cancer. Interested parties may contact Goldstein at USMaleWing The Postal Service, by the way, has no beef with Goldstein competing so long as he doesn't wear anything with the postal logo.

He's representing the National Association of Letter Carriers, the postal union.

Other contests lack lust, luster

"If there are strippers at other events, they aren't as organically integrated into the contest as they are at Wing Bowl," says Jason Fagone.

The writer traveled across the United States and as far as Japan researching his book, "Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream."

Fagone's reporting led to his conviction that there's no huge spectator interest to most competitive eating events, although he points out the annual Nathan's Famous Hot Dog contest at Coney Island, N.Y., is an exception.

"Wing Bowl has to be experienced in person if only for the full five-sense spectrum of ridiculous sights and smells," he says, adding that it's "something that feels authentically Philadelphia," though he points out that not everybody is thankful for that.

"WIP couldn't have set out to build something like this at a conference table, it had to build organically. Now it's a bona fide cultural event." Fagone was talking about Wing Bowl with his dental hygienist, who confided that a family member had written his son an absence note to get out of school and then took the boy to Wing Bowl as a father/son bonding experience.

Water bottled by local charity

The company normally does weddings, birthdays, parties, and political campaigns. The bottles are sponsored by WIP and Real Estate Riches are happy to support the non-profit agency. *