By - Victor Kekereekun
Jacob ‘Baby Jake’ Matlala was born in 1962 in Meadowlands, Johannesburg. The only child of a driver and a cook, he had two obvious shortcomings as a boxer: he was tiny – just 1.47m (4ft 10) – and he lacked a real punch. Despite his stature – which of course, earned him the name: Baby Jake, he was so passionate about boxing that he worked his way up the light-flyweight rankings.
It was a measure of Baby Jake’s status that pan-Africanist Nelson Mandela used to joke that he never enjoyed being in his company. “He always gets a bigger cheer,” the late president used to quip about the diminutive boxer. He exuded natural warmth and, with his diminutive size and glowing smile, he became one of South Africa’s most popular sportspeople.
The irony is that little in his early career suggested he would have the staying power or the ability to make it at boxing’s elite level. Turning professional at the height of apartheid in 1980, Matlala lost two of his first three bouts. He began his boxing career in 1980 with a fourth-round victory over Fraser Plaatjie in Port Elizabeth under the guidance of Theo Mthembu. It only took him four contests to become South African Junior Flyweight Champion. Vuyani Nene later dethroned him for the title.
In his eighth fight, he won the South African “non-white” title. However, 19 fights in 3 years made him one of the most active and respectable boxers in South Africa.
He was unsuccessful in a number of attempts at winning South African titles, Baby Jake simply trained even harder, kept coming back – and suddenly started collecting world titles.
The pint-sized boxer fought Davie McCauley for the International Boxing Federation (IBF) flyweight title in Belfast, Ireland and failed in his attempt, suffering a 10th round knockout. He finally succeeded when he defeated Pat Clinton in his hometown Glasgow for the World Boxing Organisation (WBO) flyweight title. He surrendered his title to Alberto Jiminez who stopped him in the 10th round in Hammanskraal.
However, on 19 July 1997, against all odds, Matlala defeated Michael Carbajal in Las Vegas, USA for the International Boxing Association (IBA) flyweight title. He later relinquished it to challenge Hawk Makepula for the vacant WBO junior flyweight title.
Baby Jake was at his very best in the 1990s, a period that yielded 20 wins against just two defeats and a single draw. He attributed his success to hard work, not smoking, drinking or using drugs. No one could believe that someone so small could beat anyone but Matlala was a ball of fire when the bell sounded.
Watch Baby Jake’s career highlights:
In March 2002, Matlala drew the curtain on his 30-year boxing career at Carnival City, Brakpan by stopping Colombian Juan Herrera for the WBU junior flyweight title in the seventh round. In so doing Matlala became the only South African boxer to have won four world titles in a career of 27 stoppages (54 wins, 12 losses and 2 draws).
The ultimate honour bestowed on the boxer was the arrival of Nelson Mandela and Will Smith (American Actor) at ringside mid-way through his farewell fight. Matlala after the fight was so overwhelmed that he decided to present his WBU belt to Nelson Mandela.
“This is for you, our greatest world champion,” Matlala told Mandela.
Following his career in the ring, Matlala worked as a businessman and motivational speaker and often took part in charity events to raise funds for the needy. Matlala died on 7 December, 2013 at the age of 51 and is survived by his wife Mapule, and their two children.
Jacob ‘Baby Jake’ Matlala will be remembered as an all-action fighter who overcame his height disadvantage by ‘crowding’ his opponents with a relentless loads of punches His career has taught us not give up in pursuit of ambitions despite the ‘disadvantages’.
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