Summary and Analysis
Alfred prepares for his last fight, at Parkway Gardens in Brooklyn, as he did the others, but he is noticeably more nervous. The fight will be the climax of Alfred's climb, just as, structurally, it is the climax of the novel. All other activity has led to this crescendo.
As they wait at Spoon's apartment, Henry tries to calm Alfred and reflects on his own budding career as a trainer. Alfred is especially important to the neophyte assistant manager because he was the first fighter entrusted to Henry by Mr. Donatelli. Henry reveals that it was he who bought the white terry-cloth robe for Alfred prior to the first fight. He feels that he has found his role in managing; he doesn't limp as much now that he has more important things to think about. After Alfred retires from the ring, Donatelli will allow Henry to train some of the newcomers.
Spoon arrives and tells of an altercation at school with a boy named Herbert Davis who pulled a knife on him. He spent the afternoon counseling Davis, suggesting that he go to the gym to try boxing. Foreshadowing the novel's ending, Spoon tells Alfred that he has spoken with a doctor at a narcotics clinic about James; but Alfred says that he has not been able to find his old friend in the neighborhood.
In the dressing room before the bout, an official informs Donatelli that the only available opponent for Alfred is Elston Hubbard, the older, bigger ex-Marine who was so impressive opening the card the night of Alfred's first fight. Donatelli wants to cancel the match, concerned that Alfred will be hurt. Alfred reminds the manager that Donatelli once told him that the only sure way to judge a fighter is to see him when he is hurt. Alfred feels that he must fight Hubbard.
Hubbard is overwhelming. Alfred is on the canvas within seconds of the sound of the opening bell. He is down again before the first round ends. His performance improves some in the second round; he manages to jab and move, to fight back, and he is only decked once. During the break between the second and third rounds, the referee asks Donatelli if he wants the fight to continue. Henry asserts himself and insists that Alfred must have his chance. Donatelli says, "Let him fight."
Round three is a war. Alfred takes tremendous punishment but stays on his feet, standing toe-to-toe with Hubbard and fighting as well and as hard as he possibly can. Neither man hears the final bell; they have to be pulled apart.
In a unanimous decision, the judges correctly declare Elston Hubbard the winner of Alfred's last boxing match, but Donatelli knows that Alfred has won the most important fight. Back in the locker room, he is smiling when he says, "Now you know, Alfred. Now you know, too."
As a sportswriter, Lipsyte recognizes the importance of ritual to sport, and he uses it as an effective structural device. As usual, Henry accompanies Alfred to Spoon's apartment after lunch. This allows them to have time alone, during which Henry reveals more of his character. Whereas Alfred doesn't really like fighting, as Mr. Donatelli observes near the end of Chapter 18, Henry does love managing. The reader gets the idea that Alfred will go on to successful pursuits in other professions; but years later, Henry will still be managing fighters. Henry may be the next Donatelli.
The fight itself is a classic, all the more significant because we know from the start that Alfred cannot win. Hubbard embodies all of the strengths, and more, of Alfred's sparring partners and former opponents. He is stronger, faster, rougher, and more skillful than all of them. Finally, we know from Chapter 14 that he is a welterweight, at least seven pounds heavier than Alfred.
Hubbard is a quick starter; true to his form, he explodes into Alfred at the opening bell and scores a knockdown. As the fight progresses, Lipsyte's imagery is specific and telling. Hubbard's left is "like a meat hook." His head crashes into Alfred's mouth. He hurls the lighter man against the ropes. His gloves are hammers. His shoes slash at Alfred's ankles. Hubbard's shoulders rough up Alfred's chin. His head is like a huge bullet, grinding into Alfred's eyes. Alfred has no business staying in this fight. In a magnificent simile, embodying the life of Alfred the street kid, Lipsyte describes the sound that Alfred numbly hears as he is knocked down a second time; it is a "distant plop, like a stone splashing into the pool at the bottom of a sewer hole."
Still, Alfred fights back. He manages to throw some combinations. In the second round, he is better, sticking and moving. Unfortunately, Hubbard catches him in a corner, slamming Alfred against the post. The ex-Marine's fists are sledgehammers. Alfred is down for the third time. Somehow he is up again, telling the referee that he is fine. He survives the second round, and Henry succeeds in convincing Donatelli to allow a third.
Alfred is seriously hurt. His vision is blurred. The crowd is insane. He faces a bigger, better, meaner fighter. He cannot win. And he doesn't care. He stands toe-to-toe with Hubbard. He will not back off. He is "gonna stand here all day and all night, . . . gonna climb, man, gonna keep climbing, you can't knock me out, nobody ever gonna knock me out, you wanna stop me you better kill me." Alfred goes the distance. Lipsyte foreshadows that Alfred will always go the distance; it just won't be in a boxing ring.
Brooklyn a borough of New York City, on western Long Island.