Mr. Donatelli draws an important distinction between being a champion and being a contender. While the odds of one being a champion are slim, he knows that anyone can be a contender. Being a contender is not about raw talent or the kind of innate skill that few possess—being a contender, as Mr. Donatelli says, is about blood, sweat, and tears. It is purely a measure of how hard someone works. The reason this is so important to Alfred is because he has never worked for something so hard; he does not even know if he can do it. Also, Mr. Donatelli knows that the concept of being a contender redefines the way Alfred thinks of himself. If Alfred is a contender, then he is somebody special. Being a contender comes not from what station in life a person is born, or how lucky they might be to have received a special gift or talent, but being a contender is a function of who a person is.
In the beginning of the book, Alfred teeters between two different destinies. He could go in one of two directions: toward a path of self-destruction as his friend James or toward a place where he can try and make something of himself. The problem with the latter is how difficult it is, especially when one has little support. Alfred decides to choose the road of self-improvement, which is why the concept of being a contender is so important to him. He improves himself along with his determination, his work ethic, his skills, his knowledge of himself, and his role in life. He decides that yes, he can be someone, and it does not mean that he must be a champion boxer. Being someone means going to night school, helping a brother, and working with kids at a recreation program. By the end of the book Alfred has an understanding of self, and thus, the self- improvement he needs to help him conquer temptations of negativity and nothingness.
For people in Alfred's position, quitting is not merely the ceasing of activity. Quitting is giving up in a way that begets a future with sparse ambition and little success. Quitting seems so easy, as indicated by James's and Alfred's hasty decisions to quit school. Furthermore, Alfred quits boxing, and James, worse still, quits functioning in normal society. For people whose prospects seem dim, quitting seals ones fate, trapping one into a life that he or she feels he or she cannot escape. Alfred demonstrates a will and determination that will not allow him to simply quit. What he learns about himself through his boxing training is that he is the kind of person who does not want to quit, which is perhaps his greatest success of all.
In a nutshell, Alfred's predominant reason for feeling as if he is not special is his inability to fit in. He is no longer in school, he has no immediate family, and his best friend has turned away from him to do drugs. He has no support system other than Aunt Pearl, and he has nowhere to turn for acceptance. Boxing provides him with a niche. The people take care of him, even though he is not particularly well suited for the sport. Alfred realizes that he does not need to be a champion boxer to fit in—he only needs to possess a drive and determination that others can appreciate and thus nurture. When Alfred fits in with a group of people brought together by the sport, he realizes that there are other avenues open to him such as school and recreation programs. Alfred learns how to fit in because he learns what it is about himself that is worth appreciating.
The support system Alfred finds in the book is born out of loyalty. The people who help him—Mr. Donatelli, Spoon, Jelly Belly and Henry—are not simply loyal to Alfred, but they are loyal to each other. They are loyal to boxing and to what they know it can inspire in people, and they are loyal to anyone who wants something hard enough to work for it. Alfred had never been treated like that by anyone before, and when it comes time for him to display loyalty and help someone else out, he is capable of doing so.
Aunt Pearl tells Alfred that, when she was seventeen, she wanted to sing in a show, but her mother would not let her. She says that what hurt was not that she failed to realize a dream, but that she was never allowed to try. Although she is not crazy about the idea of her nephew boxing, she allows Alfred to do it because she understands that he needs to pursue the dream, even if it does not work out. She understands what it means to need to "know," and thus against her better judgment allows Alfred to continue boxing.
A curious thing happens to Alfred at his first fight—he wins. An even stranger thing that happens after this fight is that he is not particularly happy about it. This is when Donatelli gets the sense that Alfred is not cut out for boxing, and it is also when Donatelli learns that Alfred is not boxing to win—he is boxing to learn about himself and focus his determination. During the course of the book, Lipsyte redefines what it means to win; It is after the only fight that Alfred actually loses where he actually gains the most. After this losing fight, Alfred realizes that he is a "contender" and, in a sense, comes out the big winner.
Alfred and James's old hideout represents their past solidarity and brotherhood. It also represents a time when they were younger, when they were just kids whose lives were not nearly as complicated as they are now. The hideout is a throwback to childhood and to feeling safe and secure. Alfred finds James there when James is hurt and hiding from the police, as if James had tried to retreat into his childhood and thus to a time when he was safe. James had nowhere else to go when he was alone and scared, and so he traveled back in time to the last place he remembered feeling secure.
The robe symbolizes Alfred's legitimacy as a boxer. When one does not deserve to be in the ring, one does not get to wear a robe with his name on it. Alfred is very moved when he earns a robe because it gives him an identity he has never had. He is also moved by the fact that Henry bought it for him, acknowledging the fact that his efforts are being noticed by others.
The three steep flights of stairs to Donatelli's gym represent a long and uphill struggle to get somewhere. Alfred's journey throughout the book is much like those stairs—difficult to climb, easy to fall down, and sometimes seeming like the top is too far away. However, just as climbing those stairs into Donatelli's gym yielded positive and unexpected results, pushing himself to keep going finally allows Alfred to find that for which he is looking.