The novel begins as Alfred, the protagonist, waits for his best friend James, with whom he has planned to go to the movies. James does not show up, and Alfred goes looking for him, eventually finding him in the company of three neighborhood hoodlums, Major, Sonny, and Hollis. James and the other three bemoan their lack of money, and they contemplate robbing Epsteins' grocery store—the place where Alfred works. Alfred tries to stop them because he knows that on Fridays, the Epsteins leave all the money in the cash register in observance of the Sabbath. James and the hoodlums try to get Alfred to go with them, but Alfred refuses.
Alfred bumps into Henry, a nice man from the neighborhood who walks with a limp. Henry explains that he has been working at Donatelli's gym, where famous boxers train. Henry suggests that Alfred come up to the gym. In the middle of the conversation Alfred sees a police car and remembers that the Epsteins just recently installed a new alarm in their store. He rushes out to try and warn James but is too late. Someone in the crowd says that the police apprehended one of the potential robbers. Alfred goes looking for James in their old hideaway in Central Park, hoping that he has escaped from the police and is waiting there. He remembers when they were ten years old at a time when he and James sat in their special cave hideaway when Alfred's father left home. They hid in the cave again when Alfred's mother died of pneumonia. He remembers how he and James always used to be partners and is fearful of the prospect of James's potential arrest. On the way home, Alfred bumps into Major and the other two hoodlums, who tell him James was caught by the police, and the three proceed to beat Alfred up.
The next morning Alfred lies to his Aunt Pearl about what happened to him. She tells Alfred that Henry carried him home the previous night. Later Alfred and Aunt Pearl talk about James, and Alfred tells her that he knew about the plan but tried to dissuade James. Alfred leaves the apartment to take a walk and someone tells him that Major and the others are looking for him. Alfred stops at Donatelli's Gym and finally goes up, ascending the three flights of stairs to the gym. Once in the gym, he sees Mr. Donatelli and tells him he is there to learn to be a fighter.
Mr. Donatelli measures and weighs Alfred and then asks him what he hopes to accomplish. Donatelli asks him if he is afraid and says that a "man must have some fear and learn to control it, to make it work for him." Donatelli explains the difference between fighting a man in the street and fighting a man in the ring, and then he shows Alfred the different punching bags and explains which fighting techniques they help develop. Donatelli gives Alfred a rigorous training schedule: waking up at 5:30 for a run; eating a breakfast of eggs, toast, and tea; doing sit-ups, push-ups and other exercises after work; eating a good dinner; and going to bed by 9:00 pm. Donatelli warns Alfred that even after much hard work, he still may not become a fighter. Then Donatelli asks Alfred how long he stayed in school, and Alfred reveals that he dropped out after the eleventh grade. Donatelli asks why he will not quit boxing in the same way. Alfred ponders the question, then responds by saying that he wants to be a champion. Donatelli tells him that it is the process of becoming a champion that makes a man special: "Everybody wants to be a champion. That's not enough. You have to start by wanting to be a contender, the man coming up. " Donatelli tells Alfred that he will always be there in the gym, and what happens next is up to Alfred.
The first few chapters illustrate many aspects of Alfred's life without revealing exactly what is going on. We learn that Alfred's best friend is being led astray by bad friends and crime; we learn that Alfred is being bullied and is afraid of James's new friends; we learn that Alfred misses the days when he and James used to face problems together. In place of his missing friend, Alfred feels very alone and develops the desire to improve himself and be someone special. Alfred's visit to the gym in chapter 3 is a result of all of these influences, and it seems to provide an answer to many of Alfred's problems. At the gym he can train and be safe from Major and the others. He can attempt to improve himself and garner the kind of support he no longer receives from James and the kind of guidance that has been scarce since the departure of his father and death of his mother. Lipsyte indicates why the gym, as dark and foreboding as it may be, is attractive to Alfred, and why the hard work that accompanies training is also helpful.
Boxing is set up as a metaphor for Alfred's other problems. Donatelli tells him that even if he works harder than he has ever worked before and sticks to the schedule, he probably will not become a champion boxer. The struggle to become a renowned boxer is much like the other struggles in Alfred's life—like his struggle for an education; for a good job; to avoid the temptations of gangs, crimes and drugs and most importantly; to become someone. Learning to be a boxer, or at least a contender, is representative of the larger struggles that Alfred has and will confront throughout the rest of the novel.