"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.