The Contender, written by Robert Lipsyte, is a novel about the protagonist, Alfred Brooks. The Contender, as the title suggests, is known as the possibility of someone becoming a champion and hence, this novel is a story of how the motivation to be a contender aroused in Alfred and what happens from the point of him accepting his passion to the point where he actually becomes one.
The story opens with Alfred spending some quality time with his friends James, Major and Hollis. The three friends suddenly decide to smash into the grocery store where Alfred works. Alfred had already left the scene so it was only the three when the plan was conspiring. The intention of the breakage was not to make any damages to Alfred or his working place but to just surprise Alfred with this act. He forgets that his boss had installed a new security system at the doors, which would immediately inform the owners and the police of any break in. Hence, when the three friends break into the store, the police arrive sooner than expected and James is arrested. Seeing their friend get arrested, Major and Hollis are infuriated and decide to beat up Alfred to teach him a lesson for sending James to jail. They think Alfred had done this intentionally.
While he is getting beaten up mercilessly, a man named Henry comes down to rescue Alfred and takes him home. Henry informs Alfred of the place where he works and that his boss is Mr. Donatelli, the owner of a gym specially made for famous boxers’ training sessions. Henry decides to give Alfred a tour of the gym and introduces him to Mr. Donatelli. Alfred, impressed and exhilarated by the energy of the gym, goes to Mr. Donatelli and tells him he wishes to be the champion in the ring to which Mr Donatelli replies that he has to become a contender first. He adds that for the contender, it is important to be dedicated in all the training sessions and only with sheer practice, will he see the championship in his belt. The next day, Mr. Donatelli and Henry decides to take Alfred to a live boxing match so that Alfred could see how the world of boxing truly looks like and what it is that that he was trying to get into. In the ring is present Mr Donatelli’s promising boxer, Willie Streeter. Alfred watches the match and sees Streeter get hit really badly. This infuriates Streeter extremely. However, Mr. Donatelli surrenders. He prioritized the health of his boxer over winning which is a good way of showing how wise his character is. Spoon, who had accompanied the duo in the quest of showing Alfred around, assures Alfred that Mr. Donatelli is the best manager any boxer could have. After seeing and taking in the environment of boxing, Alfred is convinced that this is where he wants to belong and that he wishes to train under Mr. Donatelli.
Mr Donatelli gives him a list of things to do and not to do. All the food, exercise and training he is supposed to do to get his body in shape is well described by Mr. Donatelli for Alfred to follow. He starts off with running, sleeping and eating exactly how Mr. Donatelli had asked him to. For six months, he is given extensive training on exercise and punching bags. This starts to demotivate him a little bit because he has not yet participated in any of the real fights in a ring. Since he was not getting any of the things that he had expected to get after a time of 6 months, he becomes even more discouraged. He also begins to feel extremely guilty about kicking James out of his life due to that one incident. Since they were really close buddies, the thought of having lost him never really leaves Alfred alone.
Alfred then gets an invitation to a party being hosted by one of James’s friends - Major, who promises that James would be there. This is Alfred’s chance of seeing his lost friend and talking to him. Alfred tries not to get hold of any alcohol or drugs as they are absolutely prohibited in his training regime. But he soon gives in when he sees everyone else doing it, added to his own frustration of not reaching anywhere with his boxing career. When James finally shows up, he shows the minimum amount of interest in Alfred; he is only there to get the heroin supplies from Major. He stays over at Major’s place and goes off to Coney Islands the next day in a stolen car which is arranged by Major. In their route to the Coney Islands, they have some close encounters with the cops and as they are riding a stolen car, both of them are on edge. Alfred is stuck in a daze for the next few days due to his indulgence in alcohol and drugs. He runs back into the gym to get back his belongings and runs into Mr. Donatelli. Out of curiosity, he asks him if there is a chance for him of becoming a contender for the champion’s position. Mr. Donatelli chooses his words very carefully and informs Alfred that he does not know as he has not seen how Alfred reacts to getting hurt; that is the key to determining if someone is a boxer or not. Hearing this, Alfred feels that he had given up too soon and that if he is determined to become a boxer, he has to keep on training to become the best in his own caliber. Hence, he decides to resume his training and continue with Mr. Donatelli.
After that point, Alfred starts to showcase an immense amount of progress. In his workplace, he also finds out that his boss. Mr. Epstein had been a boxer in his old days and this becomes the starting of a new bonding trust after the incident that had happened. He starts getting a good support from his boss but not from his own aunt, Aunt Pearl. He chooses not to listen to any of her tantrums and trains until he is match-ready. Henry, Spoon and Jelly Belly make sure Alfred is well rested, fed and relaxed the day before his first match. On the match day, Alfred wins by the majority of the votes. Even though he has won, Alfred wants more. It is a win but it is not the win that he is craving for. So, he refuses to give up and just keeps going.
As time passes, it is time for his second fight. He ends up striking the opponent so brutally that he falls unconscious. Seeing this, Alfred experiences a shock and is disappointed in himself for such a merciless act that has sprouted from his hands. His boss and everyone else become very happy with his second fight performance and Mr. Epstein ends up sponsoring his lessons. Spoon, his friend, asks Alfred to join a night school so he could cope with training and studies. In the flow of conversation, he informs that he wants to get a diploma. Time passes away quickly enough and it is already time for Alfred’s third match. Donatelli had been slightly off towards Alfred because of his lack of killer instincts in the battle ring and due to his remorse for cruelty in the fight. He suddenly asks Alfred to retire from boxing because of this. Even though he does not object to the words that Mr. Donatelli tells him, Alfred believes that he needs to think about this on his own. Also, he had not even once gotten injured so leaving only after getting hit will be a closure for him. Donatelli understands this and he lets Alfred have one more fight to go on to.
This time, his opponent is far stronger, bigger and more experienced than Alfred. Alfred knows that he is, in no way, a match to him and eventually, he loses the majority of the votes. He still credits himself for the bravery and resilience he had displayed on the ring and hence, his satisfaction is ensured. He retires knowing that he had given his best and he is proud of his performance. That night, he receives the news that James had tried to break into the store again. Aunt Pearl informs Alfred that James is now on the police’s radar and that he has cut himself and is possibly bleeding horribly. Alfred sets out to find James and is successful in finding him out by looking for him in an old hideout. Alfred asks James to go to the hospital with his injuries and also gives James his word that they will fight his drug addiction together. Alfred also gives him the assurance that he will find him a job and will help him become straight and clean again.