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.
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.
Robert's passions become their passions. He taps his closest friends to raise money for Fight Night.
"How can I say no to Joe?" asks manufacturing tycoon Mitch Rales, who served as chairman of the event a few years ago. "Not only is he a great guy, but his agenda is pure. There's no quid pro quo necessary because you know it's only about doing the right thing."
Robert can't resist a good cause, whenever and wherever he finds it. In 1999, his teenage son was admitted to Children's Hospital for a seven-hour operation to repair a chest-wall deformity. Robert spent a week at the hospital, which revealed flaws in its post-op care.
"This is a guy who didn't get angry or complain or write a letter to my boss," said surgeon Kurt Newman. "This is a guy who said, 'Look, what can I do to help you?' "
Robert kicked off a $250 million campaign with a personal gift of $25 million. He ended up raising more than $300 million.
"He serves as a model and paves the way for others of us who, frankly, have not done as much," says Fred Malek, a partner with Robert, Kimsey and others in the Washington Baseball Club. He's known Robert for 20 years, but Robert's donation to the hospital really got his attention: "It certainly motivated me to do more."
Robert's most ambitious project to date began with a newspaper article seven years ago, which reported math and English scores in local public high schools. In one 10th-grade class, not a single student had achieved the minimum requirement. "It made me furious," he says. He wrote a letter to everyone in his Rolodex, with a copy of the article attached. He wrote, "This is atrocious. Somebody has to do something about this." There was no "Mr. Somebody" in the phone book -- he looked it up -- so it was up to them.
Robert became obsessed by the subject, researching how many empty seats existed in private and parochial schools, how many kids were on waiting lists and how much it would cost to fill them that fall. He launched the School Night fundraiser to raise scholarship money. But it would require tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions, to fix the problem. Public funding would be required to reform the District schools, he concluded, and he believed vouchers would provide the maximum choice for the maximum number of students.
Robert went to D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, who was initially opposed to vouchers, and painted a picture for him: "Tony, I want you to envision yourself standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, on the very same spot where Martin Luther King made his 'I Have a Dream' speech. You're making your 'I Have a Dream' speech, and your dream is families fighting to get into the D.C. public school system as opposed to fleeing to get out."
Williams said, "I like it."
Robert spent the past five years bringing together hundreds of people from the political, business, public and private educational communities to give parents the option of sending their children to public, charter or private schools. He was effective, says Williams, because he was very inclusive and creative in his approach.
"There's a part of him that's still just this regular guy," he says. "He doesn't have any pride, and I think you get much more done if you don't have pride of ownership."
The initiative was signed into law earlier this year, the first federally funded school voucher program. The nonprofit Washington Scholarship Fund, chaired by Robert, administers the program.
"He's changed the debate," says Albert Lord, chief executive of Sallie Mae. "There's a clear recognition that the public school system isn't getting the job done. That's huge."
It's all about being willing to pick up the sword, says Robert. He believes one man with a just cause can make a huge difference in the world simply by saying, "Follow me."
'A Need in Ourselves'
Last May, in a speech to donors to children's hospitals worldwide, Robert told the audience:
"Seeing a child in an unprotected and vulnerable condition -- whether because of health, abuse, neglect, ignorance, poverty, whatever the reason -- after all these years I can still see my own unprotected self in that child. . . . All of us here seek to fill the needs of others, but in doing so we also fill a need in ourselves."
He was the firstborn of Joseph and Aimee Robert, the oldest of five children born within seven years. The family lived in a little two-bedroom garden apartment in Silver Spring, right by the railroad tracks, where Robert and his friends would play on the rails. His mother had her hands full with babies; his father sold Chevys and later real estate.
From the beginning, father and son clashed. "His father was a hard man," says his mother carefully. "He was tough." He drank and raged at his wife and the children, who grew up in fear and helplessness. It was a shameful secret, the dark side of the perfect family in the 1950s.
When Robert was in ninth grade, his father took a job in Ocean City as a real estate agent, leaving the household calmer. By then Robert was a headstrong teenager, smart but stubborn, quick to anger. He was enrolled in St. John's College High School, a strict Catholic school that tried to give him discipline and direction.
Today, he kids about his checkered school record: the fistfights, suspensions, the exasperated brothers. But the humiliations are still sharply etched: Every quarter, students were called by name to collect their report cards -- except the ones whose tuition hadn't been paid. They skipped Robert's name as often as not, and everyone knew why.
He made it through one year of college at Mount St. Mary's in Emmitsburg, before he was kicked out. He wasn't welcome at home, had no work, couldn't get into another college. His epiphany occurred in the back seat of an old car after a night of drinking with his buddies. He woke up, aimless and disgusted, and got out. "God reached down and slapped me upside the head," he says. The next day, he found a job.
As a teenager, Robert had worked in construction and later unloaded UPS freight trucks. Tapping into his father's business contacts, he decided to go into real estate. He began marketing resort properties and teaching himself real estate finance.
He made himself into a "working machine," believing that he could make up for his lack of education by working harder. He read books about successful men and made checklists of goals. In his mid-twenties, he married his teenage sweetheart. Then he went into business with his father, selling condominiums in Maryland, Virginia and Florida. It was the worst and best thing that happened to him.
Robert ran the day-to-day operations; his father was responsible for new customers. "His father has an ego that's bigger than the world," says Gayle Davis, Robert's first wife. The relationship between the two men eventually collapsed, and the younger Robert -- then the proud new father of a baby boy -- started his own company. His furious father later sued for $4 million in lost business and damages, launching an ugly two-year legal battle.
A jury eventually awarded his father $325,000, but whatever frayed personal ties they shared had already been severed. On the day that Joseph E. Robert III was baptized, his parents did not attend the ceremony. "He was devastated," remembers Davis. "He broke down."
Robert and his parents didn't speak for 10 years. His mother was tortured by the turn of events but stayed at her husband's side. Robert, then 29, was alone. His four-year marriage had fallen apart; he saw his little boy every other weekend. He poured everything he had into his new company. Professionally, he exceeded beyond his wildest dreams. To this day, he struggles with family relationships.
His parents divorced 12 years ago after 41 years of marriage. Robert's relationship with his father is cordial but strained -- his father has never attended an event hosted by or honoring his son. There will be no final reconciliation, even on the slim chance one was possible: His father's mind is faltering, and there are times when he does not recognize his firstborn.
Robert has regained his mother, however, and a sweet pact from the past. When he graduated from high school, she promised him a red Corvette if he graduated from college. His formal education ended abruptly, but she presented him with a model Corvette -- all she could afford -- when he got an honorary degree a few years back. Last May, Robert took his mother to the Best Friends party, where they found a real red Corvette waiting for the live auction. He won it with a $50,000 bid, then turned to her and said, "Happy Mother's Day."
She was confused until he explained: The car was hers because that dream was always hers. It was his gift to her.
Saved by the Bell
Robert started boxing at his neighborhood club in Silver Spring when he was 10 and stuck with it even after he dropped out of college. He says he learned kindness and compassion from his parish priest, but it was his boxing coach who taught him how to take a hit and get back up. He liked boxing because the fights were fair: It had rules, and the opponents were equally matched.
He may have been a college dropout, but he had a car and a job. At 21, that made him a role model for many of the younger boxers. He became a de facto big brother for one young boy, convinced that he could turn the troubled kid around. The boy was later arrested for armed robbery and sent to prison. A decade later, Robert poured his heart into helping another young man, who was later murdered. The problems were too big for one person, Robert realized, and he started looking for better ways to help more children earlier in their lives.
He boxed and he worked. J.E. Robert Cos. managed bad real estate loans from the savings and loan bailout. He realized the government would sell off billions in assets to the private sector, and then sold the idea to Wall Street.
"Joe's highly convincing," says Stephen Schwarzman, an investment banker who has since become chairman of the Kennedy Center. "Based on one meeting, I said, 'Why don't we work together?' " He became one of Robert's first big investors.
Since 1981, the privately held company, based in McLean, has expanded to global real estate investment and currently manages more than $2 billion for investors. Robert's personal fortune has been estimated in local business journals at $250 million; he would not comment on the amount.
Twelve years ago, he moved into a historic stone mansion in McLean and lives there now with Luke, his 3-year-old son. He has a home in Colorado, and a private jet because he's overseas at least once a month.
But in his heart, he's never really left Silver Spring. And he's never forgotten the lessons boxing taught him.
After his divorce, Robert moved to Old Town Alexandria and boxed at a little gym in the recreation center on the wrong side of town. The place was a wreck, and Robert donated equipment, then helped it expand. It wasn't lavish, but important for the kids who needed it.
Then the city council decided to cut the club's $7,000 annual budget. When Robert heard, he stormed into the mayor's office, threatening to spend triple that amount to run him out of office. The budget was restored the next day. The following year, he persuaded the city to lease the club to him for $1 a year, but he had to buy back the equipment he had given to the city. Today the Alexandria Boxing Club has a $35,000 annual budget, funded by the J.E. Robert Cos.
"Taking the shortest route to a problem you've defined is generally much more effective than trying to work through channels," Robert says. "I've always been a fixer. The easiest thing was to go to the very top and say, 'Please, get out of the way.' "
Saving the club proved he could do bigger things. In 1990, he founded Fight for Children, a nonprofit that has since raised $68 million in direct contributions or matching funds for 140 local children's charities. Its first fundraiser was named -- what else? -- Fight Night.
Robert and Jim Kimsey were walking down a Baghdad street last year, pondering life, liberty and dumb luck. Robert asked his friend, "Jim, what if you and I were born here? No passports to get out? What would we do?" The answer was obvious to them: They'd be revolutionaries of some sort.
Think Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid meets the United Nations. Robert and Kimsey share the vision, the means and the wherewithal to indulge their own version of extreme diplomacy, solving the world's problems, mano a mano.
"Some people go to Rehoboth Beach for the weekend. I go down and meet with rebels in Colombia," says Robert.
Their travels have taken them to Havana, where they were invited four years ago by Castro to share the joys of capitalism over a seven-hour dinner. Why? "Because I can," says Robert. "I find it interesting to have a discussion about democracy, capitalism, freedom, globalization and why he should have a different view."
Robert and Kimsey drank mojitos and smoked cigars; Castro drank a martini but did not smoke. Added bonus: Robert got to make a speech in front of Cuban cigar workers, telling them how much Americans love their product.
They also had arranged a meeting a few months earlier with Colombian rebel leader Manuel Marulanda. Robert and Kimsey suggested that drug trafficking and murder was not the best course for long-term security and then talked him into allowing medical care for the local children. They went on a humanitarian mission to Iraq, where they tried to connect pediatricians with American medical experts through the Internet. But passion and need could not overcome the security and bureaucratic hurdles of a war-torn country, and the effort failed.
There are rewards, however. Robert's friendship with Jones has opened a global world of music, and some of his soulful esprit rubs off, if only for a while. Robert has jammed with Herbie Hancock, rapped with Oprah Winfrey. He was a guest at Winfrey's 50th birthday bash in California, then at John Travolta's surprise birthday party in Mexico.
But inevitably, Robert always returns to his next mission. A self-acknowledged workaholic, his mind races constantly. He has a hard time getting to sleep, and too easy a time waking up. He is incapable of resting on laurels, barely savors the moment.
"I feel all my successes are what happened yesterday, and what happened yesterday is not terribly relevant," he says. "I tend to live in the future, probably too much."
There is a price to pay for obsession. Robert's second marriage to Swedish model Jill Sorensen Robert ended this year, although he remains on friendly terms with both his exes. His neck is acting up. His pals are worried about his health. "I am the chairman of the board of his personal Smell-the-Roses committee," says Dave "Moose" Bosson, who's known Robert since he was 16 years old.
"He's running too fast," says his mother. A little of that, she says, he got from her: "Trying to make it all right for too many people."
He's helping to organize a welcome for 30,000 returning troops at Camp Pendleton next spring. His older son, Joe III, now 24, is a Marine heading for Iraq, and Robert wants to make sure all the soldiers like his son and their families get the credit and appreciation they deserve.
After that, he's promised his friends, he'll slow down. He's narrowed his priorities: He wants to see every child in Washington have primary health care, graduate from high school and have access to college if they want to go. Just those.
Unless, of course, something else comes along that needs fixing.