Cape Town - four-time world boxing champion Baby Jake Matlala, who died on Saturday, aged 51, was arguably the only man who could make the late Nelson Mandela feel small.
Madiba would joke that he hated being at any event with Matlala, because the littlest big man in boxing would usually get a larger cheer than he would.
Matlala was perhaps the most popular sportsman in South African history. At 1.47m tall, he captured the heart of the nation with a boxing career that substituted heart, a never-say-die attitude, an extraordinary work rate and an ability to withstand punishment for his lack of height.
He was the shortest world champion.
Matlala said his strategy was “to work the (opponent’s) body until the head came down”, before changing tack to the head. His high level of fitness allowed him to keep up a constant barrage of punches throughout the fight, serving him well through a 22-year long professional career.
Matlala was born in Meadowlands in 1962, and followed his father, a keen boxer, to the gym at the age of 10. He turned professional in 1979, and just four fights later was the South African junior flyweight champion.
His first world title came after he beat Pat Clinton for the WBO flyweight championship. In 1997, he pulled off a shock win over Michael Carbajal, who had won the junior flyweight silver medal at the Seoul Olympics, in Las Vegas, taking the IBA flyweight title. It was a career-defining fight for Matlala as he kept up a barrage of punches on the Mexican for nine rounds, until the referee decided Carbajal had had enough, and stopped the fight.
He gave up the IBA title to take on fellow South African Hawk Makepula for the vacant WBO junior flyweight crown, but lost, albeit on a points decision many thought was controversial.
There was further, much more serious controversy in Matlala’s life.
A story emerged that he had allegedly raped gospel singer Julia Mnyamezeli in 1998, which he denied. Mnyamezeli and her husband faced a charge of extortion after they asked for R2-million to settle the issue.
In October 2010, it was reported that Matlala was in financial trouble. Pastor Alan McCauley of the Rhema Church, where Matlala was a member, said the boxer had been ill with double pneumonia, and had no medical aid to pay his substantial medical bills.
A box-and-dine tournament – the Night of the Little Big Men – was organised at Emperors Palace in Kempton Park to raise money for Matlala. His world title belts were auctioned off on the night. Including donations, close to R500 000 was raised on the night.
His record was 52 victories, two draws and 12 losses, and he won the WBO and IBA junior flyweight, WBO and WBU flyweight titles. Madiba and Will Smith were in attendance at Matlala’s last fight in 2002, when he stopped Juan Herrera in seven rounds to defend his WBU junior flyweight crown.
According to Eyewitness News, Matlala died at the Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital on Saturday. He is survived by his wife and two children.
Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula said that he learnt with shock of the untimely death of the legendary boxer, and was lost for words as he expressed his grief outside Mandela’s Houghton home.
Mbalula recalled the day when Baby Jake, who he said used the code of boxing to unite the country, gave his championship belt to Madiba in 2002.
ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu said in a statement the party had learnt of his death with deep shock and sadness.
“His passing today is a further painful blow to the hearts of South Africans already shattered by the sad news of the death of… Mandela,” he said, adding that Matlala had, “with his tiny frame and lethal blows”, achieved iconic status among South Africans.
He also hailed Matlala for working closely with government and NGOs to support initiatives to uplift the poor.
President Jacob Zuma also extended his condolences to the family of the boxing legend. “We have learnt with sadness the news of the passing of this outstanding sportsman, known for his professionalism and dedication to boxing. We extend our deepest condolences to his family during this difficult time.’’ - Sunday Argus