The women were sex objects; men were allowed to be chauvinistic but not handsy. But the night was more show than scandal; the vast majority of guests went home to their girlfriends and wives, smelling of Scotch and stale smoke.
The real appeal was the idea of it — a throwback to another era, designed by men for men with no concession to the lives they lived the other 364 days a year. It was wildly successful, attracting 2,000 of the city’s most powerful and influential leaders and raising more than $65 million for local children’s charities over the past three decades.
Then came #MeToo. The movement exploded a year ago, about the same time as Fight Night’s annual event. That evening in 2017 proceeded without incident, but it was soon clear that the model that had worked for so many years was a ticking time bomb.
And so this month’s 29th annual Fight Night was reimagined: There were still boxing matches, cigars and steaks. But there were no ring girls. No cheerleaders. And no table hostesses serving the guests. In their place: young men and women dressed as referees, a nod to the organization’s new focus on youth sports.
As they checked in at the Washington Hilton, every guest had to agree to the night’s code of conduct, which stated that Fight Night was “committed to providing a safe and secure networking and entertainment environment built on mutual respect for all participants. Inappropriate behavior, disrespect or harassment . . . will not be tolerated.”
The document “freaked me out a little bit,” admitted one guest attending for the first time. He wasn’t sure why the code was featured so prominently given that most of the obvious targets of unwelcome attention — models, dancers, cheerleaders — weren’t even in the ballroom.
Fight Night’s reputation as a wild night, even if it was never as wild as guests bragged it was, had been the reason for its success and now the reason for its makeover. This year, it raised another $2 million; Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and a number of female executives were in attendance. By all accounts, it was another good year for the event. But it was different.
Establishment Washington was always wealthy, but most of it was old money, which required a certain veneer of respectability. Then a new crop of multimillionaires emerged from tech, real estate and other private-sector industries in the 1980s. They were young and rich, and they didn't worry about appearances.
One was Joe Robert, a working-class kid from Silver Spring who built a $40 billion real estate empire. The former boxer became a philanthropist for disadvantaged kids and founded Fight for Children, the charity that hosts Fight Night.
More than 800 men attended his first fundraiser in 1990. Mayor Marion Barry, boxers Mike Tyson and Buster Douglas, and actor Louis Gossett Jr. were almost outshined by the models working the crowd. “I haven’t seen this many beautiful women in one room since all my ex-wives got together for a shopping spree at Saks Fifth Avenue,” joked the ringside announcer.
The following year was bigger and badder. “Everywhere else, you’ve got to act responsibly as an adult,” said magazine publisher Bill Regardie wearing a red silk Everlast boxing robe with “Raging Bill” on the back. “Tonight, you don’t have to be responsible or adult.”
There was criticism (including from this reporter) calling the event hopelessly dated. One model sent a letter to the editor: “I got paid to ensure the gentlemen enjoyed themselves and even enjoyed myself in the bargain.” Robert wrote in, too, arguing that the focus should be the money raised for the children and that “sans spouse” was “included in the invitation to cultivate a businesslike atmosphere at the event.”
If anything, the criticism only made Fight Night a bigger draw. The legend grew, the boldface names got even bolder, and the party now included members of D.C.’s establishment. “It’s so non-Washington it’s unbelievable,” said a smiling C. Boyden Gray, former White House counsel to President George H.W. Bush.
With Robert as producer and ringmaster, Fight Night thrived. The atmosphere was surprisingly tame, said several women who worked the event.
“The guys are respectful,” said one veteran hostess. “I’ve heard of a few weird things, like one guy wanted this girl to cut up his food and feed it to him.” And she once walked in on a model and male guest in the hotel bathroom. But inappropriate behavior was taken seriously and reported: One man who got out of line was banned from future Fight Nights.
For most of the women, the job was a chance to make money — several hundred dollars in tips if the table they were assigned was generous. Others used the evening to meet influential executives. One said she used it for networking, collecting business cards she later used to land an internship.
Robert poured millions of his own fortune to ensure the success of Fight Night, but he died in 2011 of brain cancer at age 59. He would have happily jettisoned the models and cheerleaders to protect the event, said his sister Christine: “His heart was always with the children. Under the umbrella we live in today, where everyone should be respectful — even if they have to be forced to be respectful — Joe always knew the right thing to do.”
After his death, Raul Fernandez (co-owner of the Washington Wizards, Capitals and Mystics) took over Fight Night and persuaded Under Armour founder Kevin Plank to chair the event. Having a local billionaire at the helm for four years made it even more successful. (Plank did not attend this year or last; the Wall Street Journal reported last week that the company just ended the “long-standing company practice” of allowing executives to expense strip club visits on their corporate accounts.)
In 2017, #MeToo erupted with allegations that Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein had sexually assaulted several women. Fight Night was held just as that conversation was heating up but managed to stay under the radar and raise more than $4 million.
Weeks later, a female reporter for the Financial Times went undercover at the Presidents Club Charity Dinner in London, another “un-PC” men-only fundraiser with hundreds of powerful men and sexy young hostess. Her article said that several of the women were groped, harassed or propositioned; the Presidents Club announced it was appalled by the allegations and was shutting down.
It was clear that Fight Night had to change to survive. “We’ve often said the reputation of Fight Night is much worse than anything it could actually be,” said president Keith Gordon. The organization had already decided to focus on sports for disadvantaged children; now it decided to lose the table hostesses, ring girls and cheerleaders.
“We wanted to go ahead and proactively eliminate certain elements of Fight Night that could be more polarizing,” he said. “It’s not only time to make a change, but it’s a perfect fit for our new mission of youth sports. Our function, our reason for existing is to help kids.”
There were board members who viewed Fight Night as harmless fun and wanted it to continue unchanged, keeping the young women. There was a vigorous debate: Can a tiger lose its stripes and still be a tiger?
“We never felt we were in a bad position, but cultural norms evolve and we obviously want to be sensitive and aware of that and not do anything wrong,” said Fernandez, who chaired the event this year.
Fernandez, a close friend of Robert’s, was less worried about eliminating eye candy from the night than making sure Fight Night still put on a dazzling show. “What this cannot become is just another sit-down banquet with speeches,” he said. “That’s absolutely not what Joe wanted, and clearly that would not go over well. We all go into this every year saying, ‘We hope this is better than last year.’ ”
On the first Thursday of this month, a sea of men mingled in a massive reception space for a pre-dinner reception. It was a manly vibe: hot dogs as appetizers, sports memorabilia in the silent auction (including a $15,000 custom humidor), a line to taste custom rye whiskey. The crowd was mostly male, with a handful of women attending on their own or with boyfriends or spouses.
For the past few years, Fight Night has tried to draw in Washington’s female executives, touting the night as a valuable marketing opportunity. This year, it had a new incentive: a more women-friendly environment.
Gina Adams, a senior vice president for Fed Ex, was attending for the second time with a group of friends. “The first one was a lot of fun,” she said. “I wanted to see if the women could have as much fun as the guys — and we did. We’re all paying attention now with the #MeToo movement, so that’s really why I wanted to come and see whether there’s any real difference. And good for the organization to realize they needed to be a little more sensitive to current events.”
And then the doors opened and big reveal: the boxing ring in the middle of the ballroom, a band playing, and VIPs such as Bowser, Fox News anchor Bret Baier and Washington Nationals pitching ace Max Scherzer. Table host Henry Addy, wearing a black-and-white referee’s shirt and black pants, was standing near a ringside seat. “It’s my first time, so I’m a little nervous,” he said. “But I know how to deal with people.” His job, for which he was paid $100 plus tips, was to serve drinks and make sure guests were happy; ditto for his female partner, also dressed as a ref.
“There’s no cleavage anymore,” sighed one guest to his buddy. There were female boxers (a first) and male and female hip-hop dancers, but nothing overtly sexy unless you count a handful of female guests.
“It’s a little calmer,” said Adams. “There’s a lot more networking, chatting about business issues. . . . I’m enjoying it.”
As the main event began — a 10-round junior welterweight championship bout — three 40-somethings watched and considered the evening. No names, because they wanted to give an honest assessment: a local businessman who’s been to Fight Night before and two doctors attending for the first time.
“Tonight, everyone’s a little buttoned up,” said the businessman. “I’ve heard several people say, ‘I don’t know if I’m coming back next year.’ It’s not as fun.” It’s hard to pinpoint exactly, he said, what makes a party take off. “I’m still having a great time,” he explained. “But it’s different.”
Different good? Different bad? Fight for Children sent out a survey after the party asking guests to anonymously rate the event, including a question about replacing the hostesses with the referees, and the cheerleaders with the dance crew. But is there really a choice anymore?
Emily Heil contributed to this report.