The Contender is a coming-of-age novel, and its major themes are universal. They do not apply just to Alfred or to boxing or to Harlem. The themes of The Contender inform all of us about life, which is Mr. Donatelli's point from the moment that he first talks with Alfred. Donatelli's code applies to all of life, not just to boxing. In addition to being universal, the novel's themes are intertwined, making it difficult to separate them. Even when one theme seems separate and distinct, it reflects the others.
The first theme that we encounter in the novel is that the true importance of friendship is to be there for your friend but not to sink with him if he chooses to sink. Alfred is devoted to his best friend, James, and he is willing to do almost anything for him. Alfred is concerned when James does not show up to go to the movies with him, but he knows his friend well enough to guess exactly where he is. At the clubroom, Alfred, the protagonist of the novel, must encounter his primary antagonist, Major, leader of the street gang. Major pretends to be a friend of James, just as he later pretends to be Alfred's friend; but Alfred knows that Major only wants to drag James down and control him. Although Alfred is devoted to James, he knows that friendship must have limits. James sticks with the gang even though they taunt and insult Alfred. Alfred wants to be with James but draws the line when the gang leaves to break into Epsteins' grocery. When James chooses to go down that road, Alfred does not follow. He would rather be alone than with "friends" like that. Nevertheless, Alfred is there for James in his friend's most desperate moment at the end of the novel. Alfred is a true friend because he wants James to be all that he can be.
Mr. Donatelli introduces most of the novel's major themes when he first meets Alfred in the gym in Chapter 3. Before Alfred even begins training, he wants the young man to understand that quitting before you really try is worse than never starting at all. Alfred has already dropped out of high school, but, despite his early history of quitting, Donatelli wants him to understand that he expects an honest effort if Alfred starts training. Donatelli is realistic enough to know that Alfred may quit, but he wants Alfred to realize that it is wrong to do so. Donatelli has a code of ethics. Right and wrong are serious matters to him. Near the end of the novel, Alfred is true to this theme when he insists on going ahead with his final bout, even when he realizes that it is against an older, bigger, and better fighter. Alfred refuses to quit during the fight and goes the distance, which is what Donatelli now knows that Alfred will do in life.
For Donatelli, the journey is more important than the destination. This theme affects everything that the wise old manager does. It explains why the daily grind of training is more important to him than a championship fight and why he treats every fight the same. Donatelli knows that what we do in our daily lives reflects what kinds of people we are. The process is more important than the result, because our characters determine our daily effort. The end result, the destination, will take care of itself.
From the beginning, Donatelli impresses Alfred with the fact that nothing is promised you. There are no guarantees in boxing or in life. Alfred learns this theme so well that it is the first thing that he impresses on James when he helps him in the cave at the close of the novel: "For start. Nothing's promised you, man, but you ain't gonna know nothing till you try." Alfred uses this motto to confront the harsh realities of his own life. Racism alone can not stop him because he doesn't expect any guarantees in the first place. He expects the struggle to be difficult.
Throughout the novel, Alfred learns that he is responsible for the choices that he makes. Alfred seems to grasp this concept of accountability in Chapter 12, when he realizes that he can't blame Major for what happened at the party or at Coney Island. Alfred has made his own choices and must live with them. By the same token, Alfred chooses to continue training, to go ahead with his final bout, and to finish the fight even though he is clearly losing. Ultimately, Alfred will choose whether to flee Harlem or try to work with young people there who face the same problems he faced.
The biggest difference between Alfred and James is that Alfred, for all his doubt, genuinely believes that hope will triumph over despair. It is why he keeps trying, and it is why James quits. Alfred's fights symbolize this. Every time he gets knocked down, he gets up. He sees other boxers who quit when they are hurt, but Alfred just fights harder. Even against Hubbard, when he knows he can't win, he keeps getting up. Through his actions, Alfred says to Hubbard what he is thinking: "[Y]ou can't knock me out, nobody ever gonna knock me out, you wanna stop me you better kill me."
The novel takes its title from the most important theme, which Donatelli articulates best: "You have to start by wanting to be a contender." All of the other themes evolve from this one. By focusing on his character and progress on a daily basis, rather than just dreaming of being a champion, Alfred becomes a contender in life and can be a true friend to James. Finally, he has a place within the community and, like Donatelli, something to offer others.