Alfred has two matches scheduled in December. The first is against a fighter named Barnes who is not as quick as Griffin or as strong as Rivera but is a rough customer who fights dirty. Donatelli's approach is to have Alfred stick and move, punishing Barnes while staying away from him. Alfred defends himself but offers very little offense. The fight is a draw. Back at the gym after the fight, Donatelli tells Alfred that it is time to quit boxing; but Alfred insists that he must fight one more time.
Lipsyte uses this fight to show that Alfred does not belong in the ring. Alfred is reluctant to hit Barnes because he keeps thinking of Griffin twitching on the canvas after Alfred knocked him out in his previous fight. When the crowd boos the boring performance, Alfred dismisses the fans as bloodthirsty louts.
Mr. Donatelli cares most about Alfred as a person. He tells him frankly that he does not have the killer instinct necessary to succeed in the ring; further, Donatelli says he is not sure he would want Alfred to have it. The scene reminds us of the caring way that Donatelli told Spoon to stop fighting and pursue other goals. Alfred argues that some fighters don't have a killer instinct. Donatelli agrees but adds that those are exceptionally talented boxers. He candidly adds that Alfred is not that good.
The mentor reminds his protégé of the first night that he climbed the stairs to the gym. The staircase has become one of the most consistent metaphors in the novel. It represents Alfred's ascension toward maturity and his continuing effort. That first night, it was a monstrous, terrifying barrier. On his next visit, they were "friendly old steps" that he bounced up two at a time. When he wanted to quit, they were "crummy steps"; he had to stop twice to catch his breath. This trip, he walks with Donatelli for the first time, slowly climbing the "sagging stairs."
Alfred insists that he must fight the one match left on his schedule to finish what he has begun. Donatelli warns him that Alfred's record probably will cause him to be matched against a fighter who is much better than his previous opponents. He could get hurt. Alfred reminds Donatelli of what the manager once said about being a contender. He can't quit until he has really tried. Alfred understands that he can be a contender in life as well as in the ring, but he must first finish what he has started and prove to himself that he is a contender.