You have to start by wanting to be a contender, the man coming up, the man who knows there's a good chance he'll never get to the top, the man who's willing to sweat and bleed to get up as high as his legs and his brain and his heart will take him.
In chapter 3, Mr. Donatelli responds to Alfred's statement that he wants to be a champion. Mr. Donatelli takes some of the glamour out of Alfred's desire by explaining that there is more to becoming a champion than just working hard. Donatelli does not try to hide the fact that it is a long shot for Alfred or anyone else to get there. Mr. Donatelli believes that a champion is someone who works hard to get there, not simply someone who wins.
[T]he kids these days aren't interested in learning to fight. It's hard work. Nobody wants to work no more. Who knows, maybe they're right.
In chapter 10, Mr. Epstein tries to talk Alfred out of boxing, largely because he feels the sport has been corrupted. He also expresses a concern pertaining to his relationship with Alfred about the laziness of kids in modern times. Mr. Epstein is talking about James, Major, and Hollis—kids who would rather break into stores than earn money by working. These are kids who would rather do drugs than go to school, and they reflect badly not only upon Alfred, but also upon teenagers in general. In order to regain trust and a bond with Mr. Epstein, Alfred first has to prove that he is not one of the average kids who does not want to work.
Knock your brains out, bust your back, run your feet down to the bone. What for? The Man said, nothing's promised you. We know that.
In chapter 12, Alfred quits boxing and succumbs to the temptations of drugs, alcohol, and irresponsibility. This is perhaps his lowest point in the book—he is frustrated with his training, but after having spent the weekend with Major he knows he does not fit in with the hoodlums either. He tries to motivate himself to do something, but he has trouble. Working, training, and boxing all seem pointless here. This quote reflects just how hard it is for Alfred to believe in the future and how hard it is for him to believe that he can effect change in a positive way, or that there is any real point in trying.
I won't have to, Alfred. You'll know too.
At the end of chapter 12, Alfred decides to resume training because he wants to "know." The knowing pertains to whether or not he could have been a good boxer, and it also pertains to whether or not he is a tough enough person and has enough heart to be a contender. The knowing extends beyond the realm of boxing. Alfred looks for external validation from Mr. Donatelli—he wants someone to tell him that he has potential and that he can be special. Mr. Donatelli stresses the importance in realizing one's specialness for one's self, and Donatelli says that Alfred has the power to do that. He encourages Alfred to really trust and rely on what he knows and feels, rather than what anyone else does.
"But he won, Mr. Donatelli," said Henry. "Alfred won." "That's not enough."
At the end of chapter 14, Alfred wins his first fight. The fight itself is ugly, and the crowd boos the action; but Alfred wins. Mr. Donatelli immediately zeroes in on the fact that winning is not the most important thing about this match and also that Alfred does not have a killer instinct. Donatelli knows that while Alfred fought his best, Alfred fought because he had to, not because he wanted to. Mr. Donatelli first realizes that Alfred is not cut out to be a boxer at the end of his first fight because Alfred did not enjoy the actual sport of boxing, nor did he enjoy winning. This tells Mr. Donatelli something crucial about Alfred, something that limits his boxing potential, but makes Mr. Donatelli appreciate him more.