"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.