“Wrestlers are tenacious, hard-working, no-nonsense, tough SOBs,” Fortress Investment Group principal Mike Novogratz told The Observer over the telephone last Monday. It was the beginning of a hectic week. In one corner, Spanish banks were teetering their way to a fresh round of European bailouts. In the other, looming Greek elections led headline writers to wonder whether the region’s monetary union would survive the fallout.
“I just got off the phone with a central banker, and he asked me the same thing,” Mr. Novogratz said. “There’s going to be a lot of pressure and nervousness until the elections, but I don’t think Europe will let Greece out of the euro. There are too many cross-holdings and it becomes a Lehman moment if they leave.”
But he hadn’t taken our call to talk about Europe. In three days, Mr. Novogratz would turn Times Square into the epicenter of American wrestling, staging an exhibition between the U.S. Olympic team and a group of Russian grapplers to raise money for the local youth wrestling program whose board he chairs. Mr. Novogratz was on the line to talk about how he happened to become one of the foremost boosters of the sport. Also, why do former wrestlers keep rising to the pinnacle of Wall Street?
“Wrestling develops toughness and confidence,” Mr. Novogratz said. “It’s not bravado, it’s from working your butt off. The dieting that goes into making weight alone takes so much will. I thought, if we can put that into the inner city, it can be a cheap way to have a transformative effect on a lot of lives.”
Mr. Novogratz grew up in Alexandria, Va., in a family of overachieving military brats. His father, Robert Sr., wrestled and played football at West Point and won the Knute Rockne Award for the nation’s outstanding lineman in 1958. His sister Jacqueline graced the cover of Forbes in December for her venture capitalist’s approach to solving third-world problems as the chief executive officer of Acumen Fund. One brother, John, was a Virginia high school wrestling champion and now heads global marketing for hedge fund Millennium Partners. “We were probably a little crazy,” said another brother, Bob, who Bravo viewers will know as the star of the reality TV show 9 By Design.
Mike Novogratz didn’t win a state wrestling championship; he was runner-up. He captained Princeton’s wrestling team, then piloted army scout helicopters. In 1989, he joined Goldman Sachs as a money-markets salesman before moving to Hong Kong to run a trading desk. In 2002, Mr. Novogratz joined Fortress as the principal in charge of the firm’s global macro funds, and when Fortress went public in 2007, Mr. Novogratz became a billionaire twice over. In 2006, he bought Robert De Niro’s Tribeca duplex for $12.25 million, then bought the apartment downstairs to carve out a triplex.
Around the time Fortress went public, Mr. Novogratz took a call from a former U.S. Olympic team honcho who’d taken it into his head to build a wrestling program in New York City. The pitch: Space wasn’t a concern—you could start a wrestling team with a mat and a coach. Would Mr. Novogratz supply the mats?
“SMASH HIM,” said Ray Brinzer, the barrel-chested drill sergeant running Beat the Streets’ weekly Tuesday night workout in the old St. Anthony’s gym on Thompson Street. “If you break him, good. If you get him on the ground, sit on him. And if I see you lying there for the whole two minutes, I’m going to come and step on your head because you shouldn’t let him do that to you.” For more than an hour, 30 high school wrestlers had alternated one-on-one drills with laps around the wrestling room and other feats of exertion—wheelbarrow races, anyone?—that nearly made us sick. They wore spandex singlets and basketball shorts tucked in at the cuff in rough approximations of loin cloths and neatly proved what people around the sport kept telling us: Although the old rubber suit in the sauna routine is now illegal, the best wrestlers tend to be a little bit nuts.
The efforts appear to be paying off. In 2007, the Public Schools Athletic League fielded 19 wrestling teams. This year, there were 64, and Beat the Streets was funding another 35 programs at the middle school level—in total, the organization says it helps support nearly 3,000 wrestlers, about 85 percent of whom qualify for free school lunches. Last summer, a Curtis High School junior named Rosemary Flores won titles in two age groups at the youth wrestling national championships. And a high school junior named Cheick N’Diaye finished runner-up at the New York State wrestling tournament this year.
Unless you hail from Pennsylvania, cradle to the country’s best high school wrestlers, or Iowa or Oklahoma, the states that have long dominated the sport at the collegiate level, you may be forgiven for thinking of wrestling as a spectacle of piledrivers and body slams. But the amateur version of the sport has long been popular among future finance types.
“I wrestled as well as I could wrestle, and if I lost, that was my own fault,” KKR’s Henry Kravis once told an interviewer about what he learned from wrestling. “I had nobody to blame but myself.” Apollo Global Management co-founder Josh Harris wrestled at the University of Pennsylvania before deciding that making his 118-pound weight class didn’t allow either the time or calories for the old “college experience.” Former Goldman Sachs chief executive officer Stephen Friedman, an AAU champion who wrestled at Cornell, was known to challenge subordinates to impromptu matches. Former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain was a college wrestler, though Mr. Novogratz pointed out that Mr. Thain, now CIT Group CEO, wrestled at the Division III level.
“Wrestlers are quick to qualify how good a guy was,” he said. Indeed: “Mike was a better wrestler than I was, but he never beat me,” said Richard Tavoso, Mr. Novogratz’s college roommate at Princeton, now the head of global arbitrage and trading at RBC Capital Markets.
Noel Thompson, a former Goldman Sachs trader who recently launched his own hedge fund, told us that wrestling was good training for traders because it taught them how to make the best of a bad position. “There’s the discovery of pain,” he said. “You learn how much you can take, and you learn how to cut your losses. You’d rather give up a takedown for two points than a throw for five.”
“A lot of the Ivy League wrestlers wind up in New York, so you have a strong set of wrestlers in the financial community,” said Martin Floreani, the proprietor of Flowrestling.org, the go-to website for American wrestling fanatics. “One of the things that Novogratz has done is to knit those guys together.”
We’d come across Mr. Floreani on Thursday evening, leaning against the mat-side risers near 47th Street and Broadway. Easily a thousand wrestling fans had gathered to watch the U.S.-Russia exhibition under a cloudy sky and millions of shifting lights, spilling out of the bleachers and onto the sidewalks, climbing atop planters and police barriers and whatever else they could find. Dan Gable, maybe America’s most famous wrestler, was there, as were John Smith, Cael Sanderson and a host of other gold medalists. An Ohioan named Logan Stieber brought the crowd to its feet with a last-second victory. Mr. Thompson donned a tuxedo and stars-and-stripes bow tie and hyped the crowd in a cheer of “USA! USA!”
“It’s surreal,” Mr. Floreani told us. “U.S. wrestling doesn’t usually get to do these kinds of things.”
Mr. Novogratz, dressed in a blue suit and purple tie, his bald head gleaming under the television lights, watched from a cross-legged perch on the edge of the mat, often zipping into the crowd to greet a friend, of which he appeared to have many. For the last four years, he’s served as something called “Team Leader” for the U.S. national team, fundraising and traveling to tournaments from Cuba to Russia and beyond. Recently, Mr. Novogratz and fellow Beat the Streets board member Dave Barry began funding a program that pays wrestlers for making the podium in international medals.
“Mike’s really injected a lot of energy into the program,” said Mark Manning, the head wrestling coach at the University of Nebraska and an assistant on the U.S. national team, adding: “He’s someone the guys can relate to. Would they like to get him on the mat and rough him up a little? Probably, but so far he hasn’t let them.”
Asked whether Mr. Novogratz had ever climbed into the ring with him, Mr. N’Diaye said he’d come close. “He tried to once, but I didn’t want to,” the teenager told us. “I’m bigger now. If he wants to step to me, I’ll step to him.”
Later that night, Mr. Novogratz mounted the stage at Roseland Ballroom, his shirt unbuttoned at the neck, his tie aggressively loosened. “Bartenders, shut the bar down,” he said into the microphone. “Every year we get complaints that people keep talking through the awards ceremony, so this year we’re going to shut the bar down.”
The club resembled the meeting of some secret society. A busted nose or mangled ears would make you feel at home, failing that, an awful lot of money. On the dance floor, men with bodies like upside-down anchors jangled from foot to foot, hanging meaty forearms on their compatriots’ shoulders. Cheryl Wong, a former Olympic trials qualifier who runs Beat the Streets’ girls’ program was there, along with a handful of women wrestlers, but for the most part, this was a masculine affair.
Despite Mr. Novogratz’s pleas, attendees chattered away, executing five-point throws on imaginary opponents. Eventually, Mr. Novogratz got on with his awards presentation. “I told all my friends who aren’t wrestlers that no one parties like a bunch of wrestlers,” he said. “So I hope you’ll stick around.”
As a live band took the stage and the bartenders returned to action, one could almost forget that the world economy was still in a stranglehold. Fortress shares were trading in the $3 range, down from a post-IPO high of $24.40, and Mr. Novogratz’s worth had fallen with it, down to about $500 million the last time Forbes checked.
“Our stock price has languished,” he admitted, “and I have a responsibility to my partners and shareholders to do well and get the stock price up.”
Mr. Novogratz was asked how long he intended to stay in the game. “If you were my best friend, maybe I’d tell you,” he said. “I’m going to run money for a while.”