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Popeye The Whaler Man

Heavyweight champ Larry Holmes will be in deep water if David Bey can biff like his comic-book idol

I'm one tough Gazookus
Which hates all Palookas
Wot ain't on the up and square.
I biffs 'em and buffs 'em
And always out roughs 'em
An' none of 'em gets nowhere.

David Bey hates spinach. He does love to eat, and the animated sailorman was his boyhood hero. But the leafy green stuff is too much. "I've tried it," he says, "but I couldn't get past it."

"It'll make you big and strong," his mother used to tell him.

"Oh yeah?" he'd say. "Then how come you ain't got no muscles?"

The 6'3", 230-pound Bey has them. And to some fight men his chances against International Boxing Federation heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, whom he takes on March 15 at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, are just as big as his 17-inch biceps. In truth, if the 35-year-old champion, who has 17 defenses to his credit, weren't perceived as being on the downside of his career, the odds against Bey—4-1—would be as long as his 79-inch reach.

Bey, 28, is a hearty guy with a balding pate and a little toothbrush mustache. Tattooed on his left forearm is a heart pierced by an arrow under the inscription BAY. "Strangers don't always know how to pronounce my name," he explains with a grin, "so I had a dictionary put on my arm."

There's room on Bey's body for an entire reference library. His late father, Joseph, a construction worker who operated a pile driver, stuffed him with great quantities of sausage, rice and lima beans. "Joseph always thought if David didn't eat, he'd be weak," says David's mother, Esther. "He'd say, 'Put some food on that boy's plate.' " It made David strong, but so fat that one punster has branded him the Bey of Pigs. He still looks pudgy, but you should have seen him when he was a 296-pound amateur. Nowadays he runs six miles—and pops 150 vitamin pills—a day.

Papa instilled the work ethic along with the food ethic. Bey was 10 when he got his first part-time job, filing shoe boxes in an Army & Navy store. He'd come home from school in the Nicetown section of North Philadelphia and barely have time to flick on Sally Starr's Popeye Theater before leaving for the store.

That was a shame, because the TV show meant a lot to the young Bey, who still reveres Popeye-esque ideals. "Bluto-type guys go around trying to cheat people and steal from them," he says. "My mom's pocketbook has been snatched three or four times. That's not right. Blutos just use others to make their own life better. They don't say please or thank you. I'm gonna set an example." And he does. He's excruciatingly polite, saying "Yes, sir" and "No, sir" to trainers, referees and opponents alike.

Which is what you'd expect of a guy from Nicetown. That is, unless you knew what Nicetown was like. Esther, a switchboard operator at the Community College of Philadelphia, which is located in Center City, still lives in the area, in a row house over a boarded-up grocery store on the edge of some of the saddest slums in the city. When she and Joseph moved into the predominantly Polish neighborhood 20 years ago, they were shunned because Esther was white and Joseph black. The couple was used to such treatment—Esther's father was so upset when they married that he refused to speak to her for 14 years—but it was difficult for their six sons and four daughters. "David got it from both sides," says Esther. Blacks called him White Boy. Whites called him Half-breed. At least nobody called him Wimpy.

"He never forgot the taunting," says Esther. "He'd walk on both sides of the fence. He'd be friends, but he learned not to trust people."

In 1974, Bey, then 17, dropped out of Germantown High School and joined the Army. He wanted to get away from the Nicetown gangs. "Trouble just follows you in the streets, Jack," he says. He was stationed in West Germany with the First Infantry for three years and in service fights earned the ring name of The Dancing Bear.

He planned to enter the Navy after his six-year Army hitch was up but had second thoughts about life on the high seas. "I remembered how the Titanic went down," he says. "That's too far out to be swimming. And after I saw Jaws, I mean, that dude turned me around completely. Jack."

So the only sailor Bey ever got to know was the cartoon character swabbie. "As a matter of fact," Bey says matter-of-factly, "I was with him the other night." And so he was. Bey had taken a break from training in Los Angeles to attend a party at Hugh Hefner's Playboy Mansion West in Beverly Hills. He found himself talking to Robin Williams, the cinema Popeye.

At Hef's hutch you might expect to encounter potato-nosed film producers scampering about with tarantula-eyed starlets, not to mention sun-bronzed Junes and Novembers. But you certainly wouldn't expect the rich, deep voice of David Bey, lifted in song, to come swirling out of the smoke and laughter and drifting conversation.

I'm Popeye the Sailor Man,
I live in a garbage can,
I love to go swimmin'
With bow-legged women
I'm Popeye the Sailor Man.

Bey pauses. "Actually," he says, "my house is too cozy to be a garbage can. But, Jack, I'll tell you—I do love bow-legged women." The party rolls on into the evening. It's a good thing Bey's name is embroidered on the chest of his powder-blue jogging suit, because few of the guests know who he is.

Bey is better known back in Philly, especially at Local 454 of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. He has been in the union for six years; his father was a member for 38. "There's no way I'll ever give up my union card," he says, waving it proudly. "I'm gonna keep it even if I make a million dollars, and I expect to."

Bey will make a quarter of that for taking on Holmes, who'll get $2 million. But then Holmes, whose record is 46-0, has knocked out more than twice as many opponents—33—as Bey has fought. Bey turned pro 3½ years ago and has a 14-0 record, with 11 knockouts, nine in the first two rounds. His nickname is Hand Grenade and his style of lobbing punches in bunches may be tailor-made for dealing with Holmes, who off his last defense—a desultory technical knockout of James (Bone-crusher) Smith four months ago—may be ripe for the taking. Two and a half years ago in his second-round knockout of Jack (Attack) Watkins, Bey threw such a hard right that his opponent did a full spin before crashing to the canvas. It was a punch straight out of the cartoons.

"Do you know the one fighter you remind me of more than anybody else?" asks his trainer, Bobby Lewis.

"Popeye?" says Bey.

"No!" sputters Lewis. "Joe Louis."

Later he explains, "He walks like Louis, moves like him and steals shots like him." Promoter Don King, whose son Carl is Bey's manager, calls David "the second coming of the Brown Bomber." It even turns out that when Joseph Bey was in the Army during World War II, he sparred in some exhibitions with Staff Sgt. Louis.

Others find any comparisons with the legendary former champ, who held the title from 1937 to '49 ludicrous. "Bey looks like Louis in that he has two arms and two legs," says one insider. "After that, all resemblance ends. If he gets lucky and stops Holmes, it'll simply be because Holmes is an old man."

The heavyweight division, the most moribund in boxing, is mired in alphabet soup. If Bey, who won the United States Boxing Association title by decisioning Greg Page last August, were to win Holmes's IBF crown, he'd still have to fight Page, who's now the WBA champion, and Pinklon Thomas, the WBC champ, to become the undisputed heavyweight titleholder. With the exception of Holmes, any of these "champions" would have been hard pressed to make the Top 50 in Louis's day.

Holmes said he picked Bey for what he claims will be his last fight because Bey opposes apartheid. Indeed, he must. After outmuscling Page in a close but unanimous decision, Bey was offered $1 million to fight Gerrie Coetzee, then the WBA champ, in Coetzee's native South Africa. It was about $950,000 more than he'd ever made for a bout before. But King, who's become a sort of surrogate father to Bey, talked him out of fighting in a country where a white minority controls a black majority. "He couldn't stop me from going," Bey says, "but he said I shouldn't do it. After all, how could I expect to enjoy myself in the best hotels in a country where people are starving in the streets?"

The South African government offered to issue Bey a card certifying him as "temporarily white." Bey declined it, and Page wound up knocking out Coetzee in the eighth round—which by most ringside observers' accounts ran almost a minute longer than the normal three—for the title. Bey claims the money was less important than the racial issue. "Where I grew up, kids were always teasing me about my color," he says, "but over there, they're serious."

Bey's decision reflected the love and respect he had for his father. Joseph died of a heart attack three years ago, and on the day of his burial, David took one of his boxing photos, inscribed it "To Daddy, I love you. I'll see you again. Love, your son, David" and dropped it into the coffin. Then he whispered, "I promise to win the heavyweight championship. And don't worry, I'll take care of Mom." From the cemetery he drove to Atlantic City for his third pro fight. On two hours' sleep, he scored a second-round knockout.

"If you can fight that way on the day of your father's funeral," King told him, "I'm going with you all the way."

When Bey gets enough money together, he plans to buy a huge parcel of land in Valley Forge, Pa., build a street in the shape of a horseshoe and set a statue of his mother and father in the middle. His siblings would have their own homes spread around the curve, and at the top he'd live with his daughter, Leah, now 11 months old, and his girl friend. Donna Cassidy, to whom he's "semimarried." The street would be called David Bey Place.

In the meantime Bey is content to wander through Hefner's fabulous fantasy fortress. "This place is something else!" he fairly shouts. But Bey is not really at home here. When he spies Robin Williams down the hall, he looks relieved. The two trade punches like old pals.

"He seems much too nice and gentle to be a boxer," says Williams. But he's reluctant to come right out and say that Bey embodies the greater virtues of Pop-eye. "There is no greater virtue than Pop-eye's," Williams says. "He's honest, straightforward and upstanding; he yam what he yam, and he is what he is."

"What he means, Jack," interjects Bey, "is that I be what I be."



Bey took a break from training, to bone up on his hero's sweet scientific methods.



Bey, who defeated Page in 1984 (above), was called the Dancing Bear when he fought as a GI.


[See caption above.]



Bey's sister Rachael and his mother still live on this corner in Nicetown, where he grew up