Whenever Harold Rossfields Smith took a breather from defrauding banks about a year ago, you could find him signing up boxers. This drove two promoters, Harvard-educated Bob Arum and Ohio Penitentiary-educated Don King, to the sidelines, and made TV people smile.

Although you'll never hear them talk about it on the anthologies, there's a basic law of the jungle in TV boxing: the more fighters Arum and King sign up, the harder it is for the networks to carry competitive fights.

This is why TV smiled quietly over Smith. The more promoters there were in the business, the better the pickings. The more the talent was distributed, the better the matchups. But then Smith got himself convicted in the biggest bank heist in history, and King, as one TV executive put it, "flowed back into the void like the Red Sea."

The question these days is not whether the major fights will be on network television. That's ancient history. We long ago saw the last of Sugar Ray Leonard live in our living rooms for free. He's in the theaters or on HBO even when he fights potential bozos such as Bruce Finch (Reno, Monday night).

The more interesting question is this:

With Arum and King stronger than ever, how long will it be before the networks climb into their box?

"It'll be a struggle. More of a struggle than it's ever been before," said CBS' boxing consultant, Mort Sharnik.

"They watch the Richter scale. You put on fighters, they watch what ratings you get. Then they go around in your wake and tie the fighters up. So if you want a particular match, you've got to go to them. You don't want to get in their box. You don't want to be their captives."

Come on, you say. As long as there's boxing, who cares?

Anybody who wants to see something other than a mismatch on weekend afternoons.

"Obviously, they don't want to see their guys get beat," said one network executive. "If you want a heavyweight fight, you got to go to the guy who sits on the throne--King. But he wants to keep his guys always in line for a title fight. And he wants to keep the title in his backyard, because that means big money for him. So what he does, he gets guys like (Lorenzo) Zanon or (Alfredo) Evangelista for (Larry) Holmes."

Says Ferdie Pacheco, NBC's boxing negotiator and on-air analyst:

"If you go there (to King or Arum) like a lamb to the slaughter, believe me, you're going to be slaughtered unless you say, 'Hold it, I know you're a wolf, but I am also.' . . .Sometimes it takes Machiavelli to make a fight. It takes the cunning of a Venetian doge to put something together."

With a number of TV fights on the horizon (CBS and ABC will carry title fights Saturday, and NBC will air a middleweight bout Feb. 21), it's time for a stroll in the jungle.

Item: CBS negotiated with Don Chargan, a small-time Los Angeles promoter, for Alexis Arguello's World Boxing Council lightweight title defense Saturday against James Busceme. Chargan outbid other promoters for rights to the fight. But before he signed with Chargan, Arguello, long one of CBS' favorites, sold the rights to his next three title defenses to Arum for a reported $25,000. If CBS wants to show Arguello in the future, it must kneel before Arum.

Item: On March 6, ABC will air Marvin Hagler's middleweight title defense against Mickey Goodwin of Detroit. Many boxing observers believe Goodwin, a club fighter, will be dispatched rather quickly. Although ABC will not confirm it, there has been speculation that the network had to air Hagler-Goodwin to stay in the running for a Hagler-Thomas Hearns fight later this year. The promoter of both fights: Bob Arum.

Item: On March 20-21, NBC will carry a Leon Spinks-Tim Witherspoon heavyweight fight, a Reynaldo Snipes-Scott Frank heavyweight fight, and Aaron Pryor's WBC junior welterweight defense against Miguel Montilla. Because it wanted heavyweight bouts and because it wanted Pryor, NBC had to kiss King's pinky ring.

As an opponent for Spinks, Pacheco recalled, King "offered me 14 cadavers from the morgue and a few people from the VA Hospital who were dying anyway." Finally, Pacheco approved the undefeated Witherspoon. As an opponent for Pryor, "I picked Montilla because I thought it would be the best fight" of those that were offered. "He (King) picked him because he's got Montilla."

Item: NBC has temporarily stopped running its "Tomorrow's Champions" series because of a legal dispute between New Jersey boxing manager Lou Duva and Arum. Duva manages several fighters who are in the series (Alex Ramos, Johnny Bumphus and Tony Ayala). He says that Arum, the promoter, is harming his fighters by putting them up against guys who are too tough. . .Bonbons, anyone?

Says CBS' Sharnik:

"We've entered into a situation now where every fighter comes equipped not only with his own private manager, but his own private promoter . . . The promoters are at odds with each other. The kind of fights you're looking for, they just won't happen."

So far, Sharnik and Pacheco have stayed out of Arum's and King's boxes by buying a large number of fights from small promoters--Chargan, Russ Peltz of Philadelphia, and others. As a result, many of the CBS and NBC fights have been bona fide brawls.

As for ABC, it should be credited for its longtime commitment to prime-time boxing. But to carry fights when the largest number of people can see them, it has to deal on a continuing basis with King, thereby running the risk of occasional mismatches.