Four years ago Harold J. Smith didn't have the price of air fare from Los Angeles to New York. Two years later, on May 25, 1979, he promoted his first boxing show at a small club in Santa Monica, Calif. through a corporation named Muhammad Ali Professional Sports (MAPS). Within another year Smith, who suddenly seemed to have a limitless supply of cash, was threatening to take over the sport. Champions were delighted to fight on his cards, because he offered much bigger purses than anyone else. Occasionally questions were raised about where all the money was coming from. Last week we may have gotten the answer. A bank in Beverly Hills, where one of Smith's partners was an officer and where MAPS had accounts, discovered that it was missing millions upon millions of dollars. Missing, too, was Smith.
The big paydays ended with the discovery that the Beverly Hills branch of Wells Fargo Bank had, through a routine audit, uncovered an apparent embezzlement that may reach $50 million. One source said that $20 million allegedly had been illegally transferred to MAPS accounts and had then vanished, while another unaccounted-for $30 million is still being tracked down.
The FBI quickly stepped in and Wells Fargo froze all remaining funds in MAPS accounts. Quietly a search began for the missing Smith, 37, the executive director of MAPS, who hadn't been seen since Jan. 21, and for Benjamin Lewis, a bank official who was also a member of MAPS' board of directors, and had himself been missing since Jan. 26. Ali, who said he'd been suspicious for some time of how Smith was getting his money, demanded that his name no longer be used by the beleaguered company.
Repercussions were immediate. In Philadelphia CBS threatened to cancel its telecast of last Saturday's Jeff Chandler-Jorge Lujan WBA bantamweight title fight. MAPS was co-promoting the bout with J. Russell Peltz of Philadelphia. "We were afraid the fighters wouldn't get paid," said Mort Sharnik, CBS' boxing consultant. A few hours before the fight, Sammy Marshall, the noticeably haggard MAPS president, signed all rights over to Peltz.
In New York a frenzied search began for a way to salvage the Feb. 23 $8.1-million MAPS promotion at Madison Square Garden that was to include three title bouts and the ballyhooed Gerry Cooney-Ken Norton heavyweight fight. Elsewhere at least eight world champions under MAPS contracts started seeking new, if less generous, promoters.
When the bearded, 6'2" Smith was last seen, he was reportedly leaving for Puerto Rico to complete the plans for an Ali-John L. Gardner fight tentatively scheduled for San Juan in mid-April. But 10 days later Mrs. Pepe Cordero, the wife of the boxing promoter Smith was supposed to contact in Puerto Rico, said neither she nor her husband had seen or heard from Smith in two weeks.
Smith, a native of Alabama, has always been something of a mystery man, even to those close to him. In the 1960s he was often seen with civil rights activists like Stokely Carmichael and Rap Brown. He once told a friend that his uncle was one of the Scottsboro boys. In 1965, at the age of 22, he carried an American flag during the protest march in Selma, Ala. When Ali refused to be drafted in 1967 and was stripped of his heavyweight championship, Smith led an exhaustive campaign that reportedly amassed hundreds of thousands of signatures to statements protesting the move. After that, Smith and Ali became friends. Ali was Smith's idol, and for the use of the Ali name, the former heavyweight champion reportedly was paid 10% of the gross from all Smith's promotions.
Little else is known of Smith's past except that he was involved in minor league entertainment promotions when he moved from New York to California around 1976. In Los Angeles he formed a rock-concert promoting company with Lewis. One of the last promotions was a four-night series of Shirley Bassey shows for which, per usual, he overpaid.
Smith's association with sports started soon after his move to Southern California, when he read a newspaper story describing the desperate financial circumstances of Florida sprinter Houston McTear's family. Contacting McTear, Smith offered to sponsor him on the West Coast. In 1977 he moved McTear to California to train. It was Smith who talked Ali into giving McTear a check for $30,000, which Ali reportedly dispensed with the words, "Go buy the family a house."
Soon afterward, Smith formed Muhammad Ali Amateur Sports, and he emerged as a promoter of track and field meets. CBS televised Smith's first meet, in 1977. Barry Frank was then CBS' director of sports. Shortly after signing a contract with Smith, Frank flew to Los Angeles for a meeting of network affiliates. Waiting for him in the lobby of the Century Plaza Hotel was Smith.