The Second Time Around

Harold Smith, the promoter who swindled a bank out of $21.3 million, is back in boxing, guiding Larry Holmes
March 23, 1992

Greed is not good, O.K.? A lot of us lost jobs, houses—and ol' Harold lost five years, three months, 21 days and 13 hours—because greed is not good at all. So much money, so many consequences. Lives and families in disrepair. The colossal consumption of the '80s was stupid, really. All that ambition wasted. That is the lesson learned. But damn, some of us had an awful lot of fun for a while. Didn't we?

Ol' Harold? That would be Harold Smith (a.k.a. Ross Fields), the once and, it appears, present venture capitalist of boxing. Smith was, back at the dawn of the overheated '80s, promoting fights in a frenzy until some clever accountants at the FBI figured out that ol' Harold had made off with $21.3 million that rightfully belonged to the Wells Fargo Bank. Smith was convicted of fraud and of aiding and abetting embezzlement, served his time—he got 4⅖ years off for good behavior—and, seeking gainful employment, found his way back to the business he had left so abruptly. This being the doleful '90s, Smith is resuming his career without a lot of fanfare, acting as an adviser to Larry Holmes, who will fight Evander Holyfield in June for the heavyweight title he lost back in 1984, and to Thomas Hearns, who will meet Iran Barkley in a rematch this week in Las Vegas.

Smith remembers when his idea of pocket change was $1.5 million. Rather, it was walking-around money; $1.5 million wouldn't fit in any pocket we know of. "A suitcase," ol' Harold says. "Big damn suitcase." This would have been back in 1979, when he was trying to corner the market on heavyweights and he was hauling enormous amounts of currency from coast to coast. Big damn fun.

Here's what happened on one such trip. He called on Earnie Shavers in Las Vegas, with $300,000 in an airline-pilot bag. The idea was that Shavers, a dangerous if flawed contender who was then in the last fight of a contract with King, would secretly sign with Smith. Shavers was agreeable. He was not particularly greedy. It's just that he had found the life of a heavyweight contender to be extremely expensive. At that time he was maintaining a swimming pool, a nine-hole golf course and an airstrip. Shavers found these things to be necessary even though he didn't swim, play golf or fly planes.

Shavers looked at the pile of money Smith had emptied on the coffee table of his hotel room. There were bound packs of fifties ($5,000) and hundreds ($10,000). They were made to be stacked, but instead Shavers broke open a pack and began counting. "One, two, three...." Smith tried to explain that if Shavers really wanted to count the money, he could just add the stacks. "Four," Shavers counted, "five...." To Smith's mounting horror, Shavers was peeling back the bills one at a time. "Six, seven...."

"Look, Earnie," Smith said, "it's all there, believe me. I wouldn't cheat you." Shavers, whose principal flaw may have been that he was the nicest man in boxing, looked up from his bills. "Oh, no, Harold. I'm not worried about that. I'd just feel bad if I counted this money and you'd given me more than you were supposed to." And he went back to his counting. It took him more than an hour.

The next year Smith was on his way to see Holmes, who was then the heavyweight champion. Like Shavers—like nearly every heavyweight at the time—Holmes was bound to an exclusive multi-fight contract with promoter Don King. Smith thought that a suitcase filled with $1.5 million in cash and checks, offered as a kind of signing bonus, might persuade Holmes to consider changing promoters. But on the way to Holmes's office in Eastern, Pa., Smith stopped off to see Muhammad Ali at his training camp in nearby Deer Lake. Smith and Ali went back a ways; Ali had helped Smith obtain the closed-circuit rights to his first fight with Joe Frazier, in 1971. Ali said, "What you got in that suitcase, Harold?" Smith revealed the cash. Ali was delighted. He made Smith pour the money all over him and then summoned his friend and aide Bundini Brown to come to the door and look in on him. Brown stood by the screen door and looked upon the great man, lying in state beneath $1.5 million.

So many people missed the point about having money. For Smith it wasn't a matter of what it could buy. More than $21 million ran through his hands, in and out of suitcases, and he had never bothered to buy himself a house. Though he had a Cadillac, it mostly sat in a garage. He traveled in a pickup truck, wore sweat suits, cowboy hats and boots. Not that he didn't indulge himself. There was a boat, there was a jet, there were racehorses. For a couple of years, while Smith and two accomplices were systematically looting Wells Fargo of that $21 million, Smith was a one-man Mardi Gras. But that wasn't exactly the point either.

"When I finally got to Larry's office," Smith remembers, "Don King had already been there. There were tables and chairs turned over. Must have been some skirmish. Anyway, I opened the suitcase and showed Larry the money. He got to sweating, unbuttoned his collar and got up and opened the window." Holmes considered the view and then said, "Harold, this money's making me hot."

Holmes never did take the money. But Smith almost had his heavyweight champion anyway. In the September 1979 fight, Shavers came within one punch of demolishing Holmes, within one punch of the title that he would have held while under contract to Smith. It was a huge right hand that Shavers delivered upside Holmes's head. Oh, the panic that caused! "King jumped up and put that big cigar in his mouth, lit end first," Smith says. "And he didn't even realize the worst of it, that with that punch, I had gotten the heavyweight champion of the world from him."

Of course Holmes eventually stopped Shavers in the 11th round of that fight, King kept the division for himself, and a year and a half later Smith's suspiciously grandiose empire—Empire of Deceit, prosecutor Dean Allison called it in his book about the bank scandal—came crashing down around him. He was convicted for his involvement in a "rollover" scheme, whereby withdrawals from Smith's account at one Wells Fargo branch were falsely credited at another branch. Smith disappeared for five years into federal prison camps in Danbury, Conn., Petersburg, Va., and Boron, Calif. But for a while there, a lot of people were loosening collars and mopping foreheads. All that money was making people hot. Maybe that was the point.

A decade later money can still make you want to open a window and ventilate a room; it's just that there's not so much of it around anymore. Smith, a free man since Oct. 31, 1988, is again traveling coast to coast in the pursuit and service of boxers, but no longer does his carry-on bag contain folding money. This is a new age, a new Harold Smith. Instead of cash, he delivers a smooth line of patter to fellows like Holmes and Hearns (and very nearly Mike Tyson). He's no longer Harold Smith, flamboyant promoter, but Harold Smith, background adviser. He is operating at a much lower temperature now. He says he would rather the fighters open their eyes instead of their collars.

It's odd to see him back at all, after his travails. But then where did you think he was going to turn up? "My problem was never boxing," he tells people. "It was banking." In his mind, his incarceration, as he calls it, was simply the failure to balance a checkbook properly. Didn't you ever overdraw $21.3 million?

It can happen.

But it's especially strange to see him maintain as low a profile as he has in this little comeback. When Holmes decisioned Ray Mercer recently, it took a trained eye to locate Smith amid the assemblage. As Holmes entertained the press after the fight, Smith stood well apart from the crowd, occasionally standing on tiptoe to see what was happening. This wasn't the Harold Smith anybody remembered from a dozen years ago, when his Muhammad Ali Professional Sports (MAPS) outfit was barnstorming the country, signing nine world champions to promotional contracts and staging fights, one after another, that turned out to be spectacular only in the amount of money they lost. This new Harold Smith wore a business suit. The wild beard that we remembered was neatly trimmed. He wore sensible shoes. Everything about him seemed restrained and disciplined.

By many accounts Smith is every bit the businessman that he appears to be. At least thus far. Seth Abraham, who oversees boxing for HBO and TVKO, marvels at the transformation. Although Smith was sighted on the boxing landscape soon after his release from prison, when he had a brief affiliation with former Olympian Roy Jones, the last Abraham had actually heard from Smith before he turned up a year ago with Hearns and Holmes was back in 1981. At the time, Smith was putting together a card in Madison Square Garden. There were to be four title lights, plus a Ken Norton-Gerry Cooney heavyweight bout. Smith called the promotion "This Is It" and boasted that it was a lock to do $80 million. When Smith called on him at HBO, Abraham was intrigued.

"He came in wearing that big cowboy hat, those boots and a MAPS track suit," Abraham says. "He tells me he wants $75 million. That's a bit steep, I tell him. He says, "But this is the biggest event in the history of the world.' I said. "You mean in boxing, don't you?' " Smith retired to a different office, came back after 20 minutes and admitted he had, in fact, overpriced it. He would take $55 million. "I'm thinking I'm a helluva negotiator," Abraham says. "A million a minute." Still, they were about $52 million apart. Abraham told him to leave for an hour.

Of course a meeting with Smith could never be complete without the ritual opening of baggage. This time Smith trotted out an Adidas bag full of money, more cash than Abraham had ever seen. Abraham saved the exit line for himself. "I explained it wasn't my bar mitzvah," and he sent Smith on his way.

Very soon after that the FBI arrested Smith, and as Abraham likes to say. "This Is It and That Was That." The only fight on that Garden card that remained was Cooney-Norton, and it turned out that Abraham needed to pay only $550,000 to MSG for the rights to televise it.

And here is Smith, more than 10 years later, sitting in Abraham's office again, "I know his past," says Abraham. "Still, it's just pleasant to be with him. He's a most likable guy." In meetings with Abraham, Smith sits right next to Hearns—the fighter's "personal kitchen cabinet," says Smith—and comments on possible opponents for Hearns.

"He's done a smart thing, how he's been reborn in the boxing business," says Abraham. "Here he is attaching himself as an adviser to the lighters. They don't hold Wells Fargo against him the way my company might."

What Smith does, exactly, is hard to explain. But certainly there is no one else in boxing doing it. "What I've done," he says, "is create a new position in boxing: consultant." Smith, neither manager nor promoter—it's less complicated that way, he says—helps the fighters map out careers. He never signs a contract, but his is the whisper in the fighter's ear. "Like this [Holmes-Ray Mercer] fight," Smith says. "I told him to make TVKO give him two dollars [per subscription] after 250,000 homes were sold. That could mean an additional half million dollars."

The fighters seem reassured by his presence and advice. "I don't know what Harold does," says Holmes, laughing, "except that I came to him as a friend, and here I am about to fight for the heavyweight title. The guy means well, he always did, even before he got into trouble. But I'm still kicking myself in the butt for not taking that bag of cash." Nowadays, Holmes enjoys Smith's advice instead of his money. Holmes, who like Hearns now eschews managers and their one-third shares of purses, installs Smith at his side for every major negotiation. Just two weeks ago Smith was alongside Holmes when he finalized a deal with Bob Arum to fight for Holyfield's heavyweight title. Holmes will earn $7.5 million. Fellas, is it getting a little hot in this room?

Arum, like Abraham, is amused by this new Harold Smith. After all, he knew Harold before he was Harold. "He was Ross Fields," says Arum. "Skinny guy, clean-shaven. Showed up in my office in New York and wanted to handle some of my closed-circuit locations for the Ali—Jimmy Ellis fight [in July 1971]."

Fields/Smith was impressive, and Arum signed a deal with him. But Arum had difficulty collecting what Fields/Smith owed him. Fields/Smith would propose a new deal on a new fight and use that money to pay off the previous contract. This rolling over of debt was something he would eventually practice on a much grander scale. Says Arum, "I never put it together when he was Harold Smith and spending all this money on all these wild schemes, paying these light heavyweights $750,000 when I was paying them $250,000."

Now Arum gladly pays him a fee on each fight (as do Holmes and Hearns) "to facilitate negotiations." Arum says, "He plays a useful role. I never felt confident doing deals with fighters. My M.O. is gaining the trust of managers. Where there is no manager, it's easier having Harold explain the realities to the fighter. He fulfills a role somewhere between promoter and manager. He's a schmoozer."

For Smith, even after all this time, the real difficulty is in explaining what he has done, not what he is doing. And this seems impossible. He still clings to a defense that, according to prosecutor Allison, borders on the hallucinatory. "He's still talking about a line of credit, about a Japanese mafia," snorts Allison. "It's hogwash!" Indeed, there are times Smith swears that he intended to pay back all the money due Wells Fargo. "Why do you think I called-This Is It" This Is It'?" he asks. That final score—$80 million!—was going straight to Wells Fargo, and the books would be forever closed, with enough money left over for everybody.

Smith still conjures up vast conspiracies in which he was the bankers' fall guy in grander schemes than even he could have concocted. "I never testified to it," he says mysteriously of the crime he served time for, "so I don't have to live my life looking over my shoulder." One thing about Smith: On a bad day his imagination is merely vivid. Of course, having dabbled in boxing and banking, he is entitled to a certain fantasy life. He mentions that arrangements had been made to get him out of the country following his sentencing. "But I'm not going to get into that," he says. He pauses. "Gaddafi would have taken me. I'll tell you that much."

Smith also spins a yarn about FBI agents who followed him everywhere upon his release from prison. Smith says that one night, at about 3 a.m., he threw a shovel and pickax into his convertible and headed off down an empty street. A procession materialized in his wake. The fact is, nobody who watched Smith operate during his glory years believes that there is any loot left over. Allison says, "I believe the FBI accounted for all but seven cents. The man spent everything!"

But there are other times when he seems almost ready to admit that he was indeed out of control. When the elder of his two sons, Ross, pressed him on the whole sorry affair, Smith found himself saying, "I was in a very fast car, in a very fast lane, and I didn't even know where the——brakes were."

In fact, he says, the prison term was a kind of relief. The first two years were spent in anger. But following a strange and profane epiphany, during which God spoke to him, he found his peace. "I'm no idiot," Smith says, "and I'm not going to tell you I saw Jesus and shook his hand. But I finally realized I needed something bigger than Harold. Something said to me, 'Succeed, succeed.' "

And beginning that day, he did. In a frenzy of citizenship that would gratify his judge. Smith began a Chamber of Commerce at the Petersburg, Va., prison camp, became its president, and organized softball games and fund-raisers for charity. As far as we can tell, a car show that raised money for a Christian orphanage was this promoter's first genuine money-maker. This was a different, down-scaled version of that old big damn fun. "No knock on the prison system," he says, "but Harold didn't do no hard time."

But did he deal with his greed? Well, he has not devoted the rest of his life to good works. Have you? His relationship with money is obviously complicated. You could say it has something to do with growing up poor in Huntsville, Ala., five boys to a bed, bologna for breakfast. Something to do with the humiliating discovery one day of a can of Alpo dog food beneath his mother's bed. So that the boys, at least, might eat bologna.

Perhaps it would be foolish to simplify Smith that way. Then again, maybe he's not even that complicated. He got carried away is all. All we know for sure is that he's back. Success, success. "If Larry beats Holyfield, and I'm telling you he knocks him out in nine," Smith says, "he would get a minimum of $20 million to light George Foreman." You hear the fever in his voice, and for a second you wonder, Do some things never change? They do. This is a new age. a new Harold Smith. This, says Smith, is all money that will go into a bank.

PHOTOTHEO WESTENBERGERHolmes and Smith will strike gold with a $7.5 million payday against Holyfield. PHOTOAPSmith's 1981 conviction proved that the huge purses he paid fighters had less to do with boxing savvy than with his ability to manipulate accounts at the Wells Fargo Bank. THREE PHOTOS[See caption above.] PHOTORICHARD MACKSONIn '79, during his salad days, Smith was able to capitalize on his promotional ties to Ali. PHOTOTHEO WESTENBERGERIn the twilight of his career, Hearns—like Holmes—turned to Smith for sage advice.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)