When readers open the pages of The Contender, Lipsyte makes them feel like they have stepped into the ring with Alfred Brooks, the novel's protagonist. But The Contender is not just about boxing. Rather, the main theme is being accountable for one's own failures and successes.
The Contender follows Alfred as he elevates his self-esteem in the midst of having dropped out of school, and lost his parents and his best friend. Alfred lives in the midst of poverty and drug abuse. Although his Aunt Pearl tries to guide him, she has her hands full putting food on the table for the four children in her charge. So Alfred is essentially on his own. He sees no need to complete his last year in high school, so he takes a meaningless job. For this, his neighborhood friends taunt him. "Why not sell drugs?" they sneer. The money is a lot better, they tell him, and he does not have to work for a white man.
The novel is set in the 1960s in Harlem. Civil rights is an all-too-new term. But boxing is big time. Names like Cassius Clay (soon to be changed to Mohammad Ali) are well known as thousands of people tune their televisions to the popular fights. It is an era of boxers becoming heroes. And Alfred wants to be one too. The question that he must answer is this: does he have what it takes to be a contender?
Lipsyte's novel has a few twists and turns in the plot; this is not a book fashioned from the traditional rags-to-riches cloth. Alfred has quite a few challenges to face. Along the way, he meets several surprises. The biggest surprises, he discovers, are found inside of him. He learns a lot about his personality, what he is made of, and what he is capable of doing. He learns to love the discipline and training of the boxer's life. But does he have what it takes to bloody his opponent in order to win? Readers must reach the last chapter of Lipsyte's book to find out.
Robert Lipsyte was a sports writer before he published his first work of fiction. The Contender has won the author awards as well as prestige for his skills in the genre of young adult literature.