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.