Ike Waldhaus wrestled his way onto Wall Street.
The former University of Oklahoma wrestler approached Michael Novogratz a few years ago at a fundraiser for the inner-city wrestling program Beat the Streets and asked the Fortress Investment Group LLC principal and director for a job.
Novogratz, 47, a former Princeton University wrestler who is chairman of Beat the Streets, had taken up the sport again and was feeling pretty strong, so he made Waldhaus an offer: Take him down two out of three times and Novogratz would find Waldhaus a job.
“I don’t know what the hell I was thinking,” Novogratz said in a telephone interview. “I looked good for about 30 seconds and then he just beat the crap out of me. Now he’s working for Rich Tavoso at Royal Bank of Canada.”
Wall Street is filled with wrestlers, said Novogratz, who has called upon the fraternity to give additional incentives to Olympians in London with the “Living the Dream Medal Fund.” The program will pay any American wrestler who wins a gold medal $250,000. Silver medalists will receive $50,000 and bronze medalists $25,000.
Novogratz and Tavoso, his college roommate and RBC’s head of global arbitrage and trading, are among the stewards of the fund who agreed to pay any awards not covered by donations.
Living the Dream is the brainchild of Novogratz and Dave Barry, president of Hoboken, New Jersey-based real estate development company Ironstate Development Co., who wrestled at Columbia University. It was created to thank those who now carry the torch for the sport that shaped them and to keep top athletes from turning to mixed martial arts, which is made up of about 85 percent former wrestlers, Novogratz said.
MMA is “a natural progression for the guys who want to punch people in the face, it’s a warrior sport, but it’s not the same thing,” Novogratz said. “We want to keep our elite athletes in the Olympic program at least one and hopefully two cycles. Hopefully that incentive structure helps some.”
Tavoso, who runs a youth wrestling program in Ridgewood, New Jersey, helped pay off Novogratz’s debt to Waldhaus by finding Waldhaus an internship that later led to a full-time job. He’s now an RBC analyst in New York. Waldhaus declined to comment on how he got the job.
Challenging people to wrestling matches, often while seeking donations, is “part of Mike’s personality,” Tavoso, 47, said in a telephone interview.
Novogratz is the U.S. men’s freestyle wrestling team leader, a role he described as cheerleader, fundraiser, mentor and counselor. He fulfilled a promise to those who made his Olympic squad by chartering a private jet to fly them to the opening ceremony on July 27. The group competes Aug. 10-12.
“Our freestyle team has almost been spoiled having Mike,” Jake Herbert, who will compete at 84 kilograms (185 pounds), said in a telephone interview. “When you have a guy that has as much influence and the connections that Mike has, it seems like nothing is impossible for us.”
Herbert, 27, gets a $1,200 monthly stipend from USA Wrestling and has received about $4,000 in donations on his website. He called the medal bonus “a little bit more incentive” on a bigger dream of winning gold.
The fund first awarded smaller medal bonuses at last year’s world championships in Istanbul. Jordan Burroughs, the top-ranked wrestler at 74 kilograms, took home $50,000 for the gold, while Jake Varner, Adeline Gray and Ali Bernard each got $15,000 for bronze medals.
“The great thing about good wrestlers is that they’re just cocky,” Novogratz said of first introducing the bonus offer to his team. “They were like, ‘Hey, thanks.’ Not ‘Thank you for doing it,’ but ‘Thank you for the money. Here’s my checking account.’”
Among those in finance with wrestling backgrounds are Tavoso; Apollo Global Management LLC co-founder Joshua Harris, who wrestled at the University of Pennsylvania and co-owns the National Basketball Association’s Philadelphia 76ers; John Thain, chairman and chief executive officer at CIT Group Inc., who was captain of his high school team; Henry Kravis, who runs the private-equity firm KKR & Co.; and Stephen Friedman, the former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. chairman, who was an Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling champion at Cornell in 1959.
“Wall Street is about not being scared and wrestling is about learning how to not be scared,” Novogratz said. “Anyone who has worked on Wall Street and doesn’t think it’s tough is out of their mind. Wrestling prepares you for tough environments.”
Beat the Streets, which was created in 2002, is taking on another difficult environment in bringing wrestling to New York City’s at-risk kids. The program has worked with the city’s public school system to put mats in about 75 high schools and 60 middle schools, reaching 3,000 kids. The Wall Street community provides about $1 million to $1.5 million per year for the initiative, Novogratz said.
“As a sport we usually don’t struggle with the ‘what’ so much as the ‘how,’” Rich Bender, executive director of USA Wrestling, said in a telephone interview. “Wall Street, and in particular, Mike Novogratz, has helped us with that how.”
Calling inner cities the “next frontier for our sport,” Bender said Beat the Streets had expanded to more than a dozen other cities and that USA Wrestling would like to expand it to “every metropolitan area in America.”
USA Wrestling has an annual operating budget of $9.5 million and Wall Street has about $1 million worth of impact on the organization’s budget, Bender said.
The men’s freestyle team finished third at the 2011 world championships. USA Wrestling is competing in 17 events in London: seven in men’s freestyle, four in women’s freestyle and six in Greco-Roman.
Novogratz, whose firm manages about $46.4 billion in private equity, hedge funds and other assets, said six medals for USA Wrestling would be a good Olympics because of the stiffness of the competition. Still, he wants the best from his team, regardless of the financial consequences for him and the other stewards.
“If there are 10 gold medals I will write a check with a big smile on my face,” Novogratz said. “I’ll be the happiest poor guy in London.”