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The Ol' One-Two Punch

Joe Robert's Drive And Connections Give Charities A Fighting Chance

By Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 19, 2004; Page D01

The genius of Fight Night was the shocking notion that boys will be boys. Even rich, sophisticated boys. Especially rich, sophisticated boys.

More than 2,200 men in tuxedos attended last month's charity smoker, where beautiful young models proffered drinks and cigars, Redskinettes gyrated through a hot dance, scantily clad round-card girls sashayed to wolf whistles, and boxing legends were hailed as the champions they once were. The air was thick with the smell of smoke, steak and Scotch. In the center of the vast Hilton Washington ballroom sat a boxing ring, where young fighters jabbed and pounded, sweaty and primal in their quest to best their rivals. Ringside tables went for $27,500; individual tickets started at $700. Two Harley-Davidson motorcycles were auctioned off for $80,000 each -- one to Redskins owner Dan Snyder, one to Washington Capitals co-owners Raul Fernandez and Richard Kay.

The annual Fight Night fundraiser is one of real estate magnate Joe Robert's many charitable interests. This year's well-heeled attendees at the Hilton Washington included, at left, Jack Valenti, Mayor Anthony Williams, Anthony Lewis, Sen. Don Nickles and Fred Malek. (Photos Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)

Amid the phantasmagoria stood founder Joseph E. Robert Jr., silently surveying the room, exhausted but satisfied. Another knockout. What started 15 years ago as a boy's night out has become the epitome of "testosterone giving" -- a high-powered, politically incorrect extravaganza that has raised $16 million for children's charities. "It's so non-Washington it's unbelievable," lauded the very-Washington lawyer Boyden Gray.

Mostly unknown outside of business circles, Robert is one of the most passionate and influential philanthropists in Washington. There are richer guys in town but few with his connections and conviction. Fight Night is his most popular event, topping a long list of pet projects for this city. He led the school vouchers fight for poor families in the District. He personally donated $25 million and amassed another $275 million for the Children's National Medical Center.

He was one of the original investors in the Washington Baseball Club. He just became a member of the Trilateral Commission, the private network of global leaders. His idea of fun is dinner with Fidel Castro or strolling through the streets of Baghdad.

He's a poor kid from Silver Spring who became a multimillionaire, a college dropout whose company has managed $40 billion in international real estate. It's a father-son saga, with bits of Don Quixote and Boys Town sprinkled in. The boy saved by boxing is a champion for those who can't fight for themselves. He is intense, impatient and driven to fix whoever and whatever is broken.

"It's the concept of divine dissatisfaction -- it's both a blessing and a curse," says Russ Ramsey, a close friend for 15 years. "Joe has this invisible T-shirt on his chest which says, 'There is no finish line.' "

The Direct Approach

When Robert was in fourth grade, a school bully picked on his younger sister. He came up with what he thought was an appropriate response. "I remember waiting on the corner of the street, this kid came, and I went up and clocked him. It felt like the right thing to do. My sister was little, and I felt responsible for protecting her."

Robert, 52, has refined both his technique and strategy over the past four decades. He disarms with words, employing logic and marketing to persuade. He can talk to just about anyone, about anything. Talk to the people who know him best, and the same adjectives keep cropping up: energetic, passionate, relentless. "It's 100 percent effort 100 percent of the time," says Fernandez.

"I call him the weaving spider, but I mean that as a compliment," says Jim Kimsey, AOL co-founder who is Robert's best friend and co-conspirator. "Joe's always thinking about relationships, and he's really good at it -- who to put together, who can do what for whom."

Robert and Kimsey are both local kids: similar backgrounds, interests, both guy's guys, both former hell-raisers, and -- as Kimsey likes to joke -- both "recovering Catholics." They hang out together, support each other's charities. "I think he won handsomely on that score," says Kimsey with a grin. "My net worth went down dramatically after I met him."

Each of Robert's friends has a story, frequently interconnected. Quincy Jones met Robert on a plane to London, and "we hit . . . it was just like a love affair," says the music producer. The two shared an interest in children's education and quickly became thick as thieves.

Robert's neighbor Bill Coleman became a close friend and confidant when Robert moved in next door 12 years ago. This fall, Coleman introduced Robert to Anthony Lewis, the new president of Verizon Washington. Over lunch, Lewis told Robert that he was a part-time drummer. "At that point, his eyes lit up and he said, 'I have a friend in town who happens to be a musician, and I would like for you guys to meet tonight.' "

Lewis walked into Cafe Milano later that evening and found himself seated next to Jones. The two, who had never met before, talked all night. A few days later, Robert mentioned he was looking for ways to help Marines returning from Iraq. It would be nice to have free calling cards for the troops, he said. "Fantastic idea," Lewis told him. Verizon donated 25,000 one-hour cards to the cause.

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