SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Many pro athletes, driven by competition and the almighty dollar, hang on long after their skills have eroded.
Ralph 'Rocky' Fratto Jr., on the other hand, plans to hang up his boxing gloves long before his prime.
'My father says, 'When you reach for the whole cake, all you get is a lot of crumbs,'' says Fratto, who grew up in nearby Geneva in New York's scenic Finger Lakes region. 'Once my goal is accomplished, why stay in it any longer?'
Fratto will meet Japan's Tadashi Mihara Saturday night in the Community War Memorial in Rochester for the World Boxing Association's junior middleweight title. The fight means a $50,000 payday for Fratto.
Fratto, who will turn 23 a couple of days before the fight, is the WBA's No. 2 junior middleweight contender with a 24-0 mark.
Despite Mihara's 14-0 record and No. 1 WBA ranking, most 'experts' rate Fratto the heavy favorite to capture the crown. An associate editor of a prominent boxing magazine went so far as to call Mihara a 'stiff.'
The two are fighting for the title abdicated by Sugar Ray Leonard on Sept. 23 after he won the WBA welterweight title from Thomas Hearns.
'I don't know if the importance of the fight has hit me yet,' Fratto said over a pre-workout breakfast of poached eggs, potatoes, juice and toast. 'Maybe it will a few days before.'
The 5-foot-9 Fratto, who hopes to enter the ring at 154 pounds, is the son of Italian immigrants. A boxer since the age of 12, Fratto's inspiration has come from his father, Ralph E. Fratto, who runs a construction company.
'My father taught me determination more than boxing skills,' Fratto says. 'He came over to this country with nothing -- he couldn't even speak the language -- and he's done okay for himself.
'When I win this fight, I'm going to move out of the house but the only thing I'll take with me is the first trophy I ever won,' said Fratto. 'My father can keep the title. It'll have more meaning for him.'
Fratto hasn't lost sight of the importance of the title fight but he possesses what he refers to as a 'perfect perspective' which should serve him well.
'I want to win -- and I want to win convincingly,' said Fratto, who has trained in Syracuse for nearly a month. 'This is an opportunity of a lifetime and the WBA is the only championship inthe world.'
A win Saturday could mean a $500,000 payday for Fratto next spring. He has signed to fight South Africa's Charlie Weir, ranked No. 5 by the WBA, in March in Sun City, South Africa -- if he beats Mihara.
The future could be unlimited after that -- and the money could be staggering. But Fratto insists he will retire by December, 1982.
'That'll give me time for four fights, including this one,' he says. 'It'll be hard to say no to all that money but (Rocky) Marciano did it.'
Could Fratto really step down at the age of 24.
'Boxing's important but there are other things, too,' he says. 'I've been going with a girl for 4 years. I want to get married, have kids. I want to open a club, manage a world champion.
'Right now, boxing's in my top 10 in importance but boxing won't even be in my top 10 in 20 years.'
It's No. 1 now, however.
Fratto will have sparred more than 100 rounds for the fight and he admits he may be overdoing it a little bit.
'In the last two months, I've taken only one day off,' he says. 'I get fatigued sometimes. Going to the gym isn't fun anymore.'
Fratto says he really 'doesn't know much' about his 5-10 opponent other than the fact that Mihara is primarily a straight-up boxer and is in good shape.
'I believe I'll win because of the difference in European and American styles,' he says. 'They don't adapt very well. What I see in the first round I'll see in the other 14.
'If what he tries doesn't work, he'll get defensive.'
Fratto, for his part, describes himself as a 'versatile' and 'deceptive' boxer.
'I'm the most deceptive fighter in the world,' he said without conceit. 'I do only what I have to do to win. I'm versatile. There aren't too many things I can't do.
'I can backpedal, I can counterpunch, I can be offensive, I have quick hands, although not as quick as Sugar Ray's, and I have enough punching ability -- maybe not enough to knock you out but enough so that you won't come running back for more.'
Fratto admits, however -- as his critics point out -- that he lacks the killer instinct.
'I probably do,' he said, 'but if I see Mihara's knees buckle, I'll go after him.'
Fratto has also heard the critics who say that while he does several things well, he doesn't do anything particularly well.
That doesn't bother him.
'No matter what people say, at least I can leave boxing and say that I was better than a lot of others.'