Alfred Brooks is a black seventeen-year-old high school dropout who lives with his Aunt Pearl and her three daughters in Harlem. His father deserted the family when Alfred was ten years old; his mother died when he was thirteen. Alfred's story parallels the major theme of the novel, which is stated most poignantly by the fight manager, Mr. Donatelli, near the end of Chapter 3, in his speech that begins, "You have to start by wanting to be a contender." A contender is, first and foremost, a man, an adult. For the true contender, the journey is more important than the arrival. Donatelli tells Alfred that a contender is willing to pay the price. He will "sweat and bleed" to get as high as his talent, courage, and character will take him. Of course, Donatelli is speaking about life as well as boxing.
Although he has dropped out of high school, Alfred has accepted responsibility in life. Unlike James and the gang members, he has a job. Aunt Pearl praises him for that and says that she will not treat him like a little boy. But this is a "coming of age" story. At the beginning of the novel, Alfred only dreams of a life as an adult. Part of that dream is to transcend the repressive atmosphere of the mean streets of Harlem. The novel tells the story of how he achieves his dream.
Henry, a physically disabled acquaintance who aspires to become a fight manager, urges Alfred to visit Donatelli's Gym, which is famous for having trained several boxing champions. Alfred's climb up the staircase to the gym is symbolic; he is beginning his climb toward maturity. At the gym, he meets Donatelli, a wise mentor. The manager tells Alfred that nothing is promised. He should be sure that he wants to make a real effort; quitting is worse than never starting at all. Something in Alfred wants to succeed, so he begins training.
Becoming a contender is more difficult and tedious than Alfred imagined. Discouraged and frustrated, he attends a Friday night party at the neighborhood street gang's hangout, a basement clubroom. Allowing the gang's leader, Major, to influence him, Alfred spends much of the night drinking and smoking marijuana. Sunday morning, he accompanies the gang to Coney Island in a stolen car and spends most of the day running, alone, from the police. He decides to quit training.
While cleaning out his locker at the gym two nights later, Alfred experiences a kind of epiphany, a moment of clarity or self-awareness. Speaking with Mr. Donatelli, he begins to wonder if he ever could have made it as a contender. He realizes that he must try.
After more training, Alfred is allowed to spar and finally to have his first amateur fight. His opponent is another lightweight named Rivera, a powerful but relatively immobile puncher. Alfred does well, as long as he follows Donatelli's advice to "stick and run." When he disregards Donatelli's advice, he ends up on his back. Alfred wins the fight, but he still has a long way to go to accomplish his goal of being a contender.
Griffin, Alfred's second opponent, is quick but not much of a puncher. Following Donatelli's instructions, Alfred attacks, pressuring the weaker man. Nevertheless, Griffin is more skillful and wins until Alfred catches him with a tremendous hook in the last round. Griffin is knocked out; he lies twitching on the canvas. Alfred fears that he has killed him.
Alfred's next fight is a draw because he is reluctant to attack the opponent, afraid that he may seriously injure him, too. Donatelli asks him to retire, but Alfred recalls the manager's words about becoming a contender. He must finish what he has started. Although he loses his final bout, Alfred fights with all he has. He goes the distance.
At the end of the novel, Alfred wants to finish high school and work with youngsters in the community, passing on some of Donatelli's wisdom. He is able to use his newly found maturity in rescuing his best friend, James.