LAS VEGAS -- Ask Harold Rossfields Smith how long he was in federal prison in Petersburg, Va., and he doesn't hesitate.
"Five years, three months, 21 days and 13 hours," says Smith, now serving as an adviser to former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, who will challenge undisputed heavyweight king Evander Holyfield at Caesars Palace on Friday night.
"I did the time. The time didn't do me," said Smith, who was released in 1988. "I learned from the mistakes I made. I know nothing wrong ever turns out right."
The man once described as boxing's Robin Hood is back. Smith was the erstwhile fight promoter indicted in 1980 for being part of an elaborate embezzling scheme that made more than $21 million disappear from the Wells Fargo Bank in California.
When a reporter yesterday voiced surprise that he is again part of the fight scene, Smith said dryly, "My problem was banking, not boxing."
Even more amazing is that he has been welcomed into the inner circle of Holmes, who, after a long and stormy relationship with Don King, is doing business with King's rival, Bob Arum, thanks to Smith's intervention.
Two years ago, when Holmes, at 40, was again bitten by the boxing bug, he called Smith for advice.
"He was down by the Easton [Pa.] bus depot waiting for me," Smith said. "That look in his eye told me he was determined to make a comeback.
"I told him he'd need four or five tuneups and make $60,000 fighting on cable for USA or ESPN. He thought I'd said $600,000, so I explained that the networks had all but abandoned boxing, and that his phone wasn't exactly jumping off the hook with million-dollar offers.
"I said, 'If you want to ultimately challenge Holyfield, don't let little money get in the way of big money.' "
Such cautious advice from Smith caught Holmes by surprise. He remembered a much different scenario the first time he encountered Smith 12 years ago, in bizarre circumstances, even by boxing's loose standards.
"He showed up at my office in Easton," Holmes recalled at the time of Smith's trial. "He was toting this big peanut bag, like the farmers use, and it was filled with $100 and $50 bills in big bundles. I'd never seen that much cash before.
"Harold told me that he had $500,000 cash in that bag just for me if I'd let him promote a couple fights of mine against Scott LeDoux and Muhammad Ali. He also had two cashier checks from Wells Fargo, each for $500,000.
"There was a total of $1.5 million, but it was all that cash that staggered me. I said, 'Damn, it's getting hot in here,' and I opened a window."
But King would convince Holmes that Smith was not to be trusted, and no agreement was signed.
Smith, with his unexplained wealth, turned elsewhere, anxious to prove he could compete against King and Arum by outbidding them for the top attractions.
Few in boxing questioned his lavish lifestyle, which, according to federal investigators, had Smith spending more than $26.6 million in two years to finance his ring promotions, a California mansion less than a mile from Ronald Reagan's estate, a $210,000 jet, a $72,000 yacht, a racing stable and luxury cars.
Dennis Rappaport, who handled former heavyweight contender Gerry Cooney, remembers when Smith tried to arrange a Madison SquareGarden fight between Cooney and former champion Ken Norton.
"We spent about four hours together, talking about life and philosophy," Rappaport said. "Smith told me about growing up poor and how he sometimes had to borrow shoes. He seemed very personable and sincere."
Rappaport was as shocked as anyone when first hearing of the Wells Fargo embezzlement.
"There's no way I can condone what Smith did," Rappaport told the New York Daily News, "but he sure did it with style. Harold Smith was like Robin Hood."
Arum also remembers being fooled by Smith, who used a number of aliases in his early boxing dealings. They first met in 1972, when Arum granted him closed-circuit rights in the south for the Ali-Jimmy Ellis title bout.
"At that time, he was a skinny, clean-shaven con artist in Washington calling himself Ross Fields," Arum told The Washington Post. "He disappeared without paying me my cut of the fight."
Eight years later, Arum met several times with an aggressive promoter named Harold Smith, who introduced himself as president of Muhammad Ali Promotional Sports (MAPS).
"We had an OK relationship, even though we never made another deal," Arum said. "I never expected this was the same guy. Now he was heavy-set, bearded and laid-back, wearing western gear. When I heard the name 'Ross Fields' in the Wells Fargo investigation, I ran right to my file. I was stunned. Fields and Smithwere like night and day. He must have been laughing " at me up his sleeve all the time."
Smith always had a soft spot for Arum, and convinced Holmes that Arum was more trustworthy than King.
"Larry needed to beat a creditable opponent like Ray Mercer to get a shot at Holyfield," said Smith. "I told him to make the match we'd have to go through Arum. Larry balked. All those years he'd listened to King ripping Arum's integrity. Finally, I said, 'Tell me something bad Arum did to you without invoking King's name.' Larry couldn't. We made the Mercer deal, and now he really trusts Arum."
Smith got his unlikely start in boxing by ingratiating himself with Ali and becoming part of his boxing entourage in the 1960s by actively campaigning against Ali's government-imposed ring exile.
Ali would help finance a track club run by Smith in Santa Monica, Calif., that would lead to government grants for amateur events. But, ultimately, Smith branched out into boxing promotions, using Ali's name to open doors.
"I truly loved Ali," he said. "I once made a statement that if I had to decide between my mother and father and Ali dying, I'd have picked Ali to live, and I meant it. That's why it hurt so when Ali abandoned me [during the trial]."
Now, Smith appears to have his life back in order, and he has faith that Holmes can be heavyweight champion again at 42.
"Larry will whip Holyfield even easier than he beat Mercer," said Smith.
4 But he didn't say you could take it to the bank.