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 4⅔ 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."