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ir Force Master Sgt. William Toler of the 725th Air Mobility Squadron bites down on a Mean Gene burger during a burger-eating contest Tuesday at Naval Station Rota, Spain.

ir Force Master Sgt. William Toler of the 725th Air Mobility Squadron bites down on a Mean Gene burger during a burger-eating contest Tuesday at Naval Station Rota, Spain. (Scott Schonauer / S&S)

ir Force Master Sgt. William Toler of the 725th Air Mobility Squadron bites down on a Mean Gene burger during a burger-eating contest Tuesday at Naval Station Rota, Spain.

ir Force Master Sgt. William Toler of the 725th Air Mobility Squadron bites down on a Mean Gene burger during a burger-eating contest Tuesday at Naval Station Rota, Spain. (Scott Schonauer / S&S)

"Mean" Gene Okerlund tells Air Force Master Sgt. William Toler that he didn't eat enough to win the contest.

"Mean" Gene Okerlund tells Air Force Master Sgt. William Toler that he didn't eat enough to win the contest. (Scott Schonauer / S&S)

Marine Gunnery Sgt. Juan Lizalde chomps on a burger during the contest.

Marine Gunnery Sgt. Juan Lizalde chomps on a burger during the contest. (Scott Schonauer / S&S)

NAVAL STATION ROTA, Spain — Legendary professional wrestling announcer “Mean” Gene Okerlund looked at the stack of burgers on each plate, shook his head and smiled.

“Whoever put these burgers together is an optimist,” Okerlund told the crowd. “We have a three-minute time limit.”

Even The Rock couldn’t have devoured the pyramid of more than a dozen burgers in such time.

The four participants — one from each branch of service — went jawbone to jawbone in a contest billed as the “Battle of the Services Bite Me Hamburger Eating Championship.” It served as the main event for the grand opening of the Morale, Welfare and Recreation department’s Cosmos Food Court in Reflections.

Okerlund, the face of “Mean Gene’s Burgers,” emceed and handed out T-shirts that read “Bite Me.”

Master Chief Petty Officer Dave Zegers ate two burgers and snatched the top prize. But Army Staff Sgt. Kip Staley could have won if he only would have kept the food down. The lunchtime crowd offered encouragement, but what went down soon came up.

“I lost it,” he said afterward. “It was either coming out of there or my nose.”

Mean Gene’s is one of three restaurants at the food court, which actually opened in late October. Eddie Pepper’s and Asian Creations are the other restaurants. All three are part of the Orion Food Systems based in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Before selling burgers, Okerlund, 60, has been the most recognizable professional wrestling broadcaster. He began his career in 1970 when he filled in for a sick ringside announcer. He later joined the World Wrestling Federation, which is now World Wrestling Entertainment.

Okerlund is still involved in professional wrestling and hosts a show called “WWE Confidential” on Spike TV.

But pitching Mean Gene’s in places such as Rota takes up a considerable amount of his time these days.

There are 234 Mean Gene’s restaurants worldwide and growing. The company plans to open 500 by the end of 2004, Okerlund said. Additional restaurants are scheduled to open on military bases in Yokosuka, Japan; San Diego, Calif.; and Dayton, Ohio.

Okerlund said he has always envied Harland Sanders — also known as Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Colonel Sanders.

“He got to do what he truly enjoyed for his whole life,” Okerlund said of the colonel. “And I enjoy this. The interaction with all of the people, both the consumers and the people who are working at the locations. That’s kind of an exciting thing.”

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