Mr. Big Shot

The charismatic lawyer and power broker took one last lap in a New River mansion during his run from the law

Hirschfeld was introduced to celebrities like John Wayne and Muhammed Ali, who became his number-one client and unlikely best friend. Hirschfeld's prominent placement in headlines over the next two decades guaranteed him notoriety.

"When he was representing Ali and he had the sheiks and all these famous people, he enjoyed that lifestyle," Loretta says proudly.

In 1982, he represented a young Saudi millionaire interested in purchasing Woolco, a troubled spinoff of retail giant F.W. Woolworth. Mohammed al-Fassi, a colorful South Florida con man with mansions in Hollywood Beach and Miami Beach, wanted to buy the company, he said, to save 25,000 jobs. But late that year, Hirschfeld convinced al-Fassi that the chain was doomed, and Woolworth closed its 336 Woolco outlets in the U.S. Al-Fassi then turned his money hose in the direction of Midland, Ohio, a steel town fallen on hard times. Pledging $3 million to the town if its voters pledged to vote against Ronald Reagan in the 1984 election, the sheik's plans were thwarted when the heavily Democratic town bristled at charges of "vote-selling." Poor form, Hirschfeld opined. Hard-core GOP supporter Hirschfeld advised al-Fassi not to get involved in the American political process.

The Hirschfelds spent only a few months in their waterfront dream home.
Colby Katz
The Hirschfelds spent only a few months in their waterfront dream home.
FBI fugitive hunter Paul Russell at the scene of the takedown.
Colby Katz
FBI fugitive hunter Paul Russell at the scene of the takedown.

At the same time, court records show, al-Fassi was racking up monumental bills with Yellow Cab in Fort Lauderdale and the old Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood. He left South Florida in disgrace in the mid-'80s and died in 2003.

By 1984, Hirschfeld was back on the East Coast, a partner in a new Virginia Beach law firm. He and Ali formed Champion Sports Management, a promotion powerhouse in the boxing world. That June, he was sued by boxer Larry Holmes, who accused Hirschfeld of tricking him into signing an exclusive contract making the lawyer his promoter. Holmes, who said he had the reading skills of a third-grader, claimed he was unable to understand the agreement. Hirschfeld won the case -- and a reputation as a shrewd, if not shysterish, adversary.

In 1985, Hirschfeld and Ali traveled to Lebanon in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue a group of kidnapped Americans including the CIA's William Buckley (whose body was recovered in southern Beirut seven years later). That summer, when Hirschfeld's friend Richard Herzberg was held hostage in Beirut after a TWA jetliner was hijacked, Ali interceded again, making contact with a Shiite faction claiming responsibility. Herzberg lied about his Jewish ancestry to escape his captors' wrath, and negotiations chaired by Ali led to his release after 17 days in a Beirut prison.

After his retirement, Ali began spending more and more time in Virginia with Hirschfeld. "Ali and I were basically two of his better social friends here," Tweel says. Hirschfeld and Ali even bought a 50-acre horse farm south of Charlottesville.

"Richard and Ali were wonderful friends," Loretta says. "He was Ali's attorney, and he was very protective of him. He always tried to make sure he got plenty of rest and took his medication for his Parkinson's. He always mothered him."

The odd couple, Ali and Hirschfeld, together owned a hotel, auto dealership, and boxing camp. When the camp flopped and investors were angered, the Securities and Exchange Commission started looking into Hirschfeld's stock offerings.

Hirschfeld's dealings with Ali kept veering into the surreal. During the late '80s, when the two were still tight, the lawyer used his political pull to gain the ear of Mikhail Gorbachev. The three met in Moscow and discussed a business venture with the government involving a floating hotel that would be constructed in Singapore, towed around the world, and assembled in the center of the Soviet capital. Of course, the idea never came to fruition.

Already regarded as Ali's mouthpiece, Hirschfeld was accused of mimicking the champ's voice in a series of telephone calls to congressmen lobbying leniency for Hirschfeld in his burgeoning problems with federal law enforcement. Senator Hatch, an Ali confidante, disputed the allegation and defended Hirschfeld. And the lawyer -- though well-known for his killer Ali impersonation -- was infuriated, telling the Washington Post that the accusation "insults the intellect of Ali."

Yet two years later, the paper reported, federal investigators determined that Hirschfeld, not the former boxer, had made the calls, and Ali admitted as much.

Indeed, as Ali's health deteriorated, speculation grew that Hirschfeld was somehow taking advantage of him. In 1999, the two had a falling out over the rights to the champ's life story, with Ali suing his former pal, who was claiming he held creative control over Ali's history. Eventually, with Tweel mediating, the two reached a settlement. Hirschfeld and Ali managed to remain friends, but the champ was startled by his opponent's audacity. (Ali and his wife, Lonnie, declined to be interviewed for this article.) "No one, not even his family, would try to tell you Richard was the pope," Tweel adds. "He was a very aggressive lawyer and businessman who believed in pushing the line."

In 1985, Hirschfeld made international news in his biggest caper yet. Through al-Fassi, he'd made contact with deposed Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos. That May, he and associate Robert Chastain visited Marcos' Honolulu mansion. Chastain was to play the role of arms dealer, with Hirschfeld negotiating the sale of some heavy artillery, which Marcos wanted to use (along with 10,000 volunteer troops) in a scheme to retake the Philippines from President Corazon Aquino. Seeking financing from al-Fassi, Marcos promised Hirschfeld he had 1,000 tons of gold stashed in the Philippines and up to a billion dollars hidden abroad in banks. Of course, Hirschfeld later admitted, he stood to gain an enormous profit if the deal went through.

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