Despite the final bell having rung for four-time world champion Jacob “Baby Jake” Matlala, the shortest ever world champion whose ring achievements make him stand tall among sporting giants, his memory will live for ever.
Matlala died last weekend, aged 51, after he had fought many rounds against ill-health – which resulted in him being in and out of hospital over the past three years.
Best remembered for his intriguing local battles against the likes of Mveleli Luzipho and Masibulele “Hawk” Makepula as well as a number of international contests, Matlala had held a remarkable four world titles by the time he retired in 2002.
He first captured the attention of the international boxing world when he won the World Boxing Organisation (WBO) title through an eighth-round technical knockout over Pat Clinton in the UK in 1993.
The 1.47m tall Matlala defended the belt three times before his reign ended two years later when he was stopped by Alberto Jimenez in Hammanskraal.
But three fights later, and nine months down the line – Matlala, who has been described as the little man with the biggest heart, bounced back to win yet another WBO world title.
This time, Matlala went down to the junior flyweight division, where he came up against Paul Weir – again in the UK – in a battle for the WBO belt in November 1995.
The orthodox Matlala’s reign as the WBO junior flyweight champion also lasted for two years as he, in 1997, went for the International Boxing Association (IBA) title by taking on Michael Carbajal in what was pre-termed the toughest fight of his career. Carbajal was at that point regarded as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.
Matlala, in what was one of his best career performances, went on to win his third world title – in a space of four years – when he punished Carbajal en route to registering a ninth round stoppage victory in yet another away fight that was staged overseas – albeit this time in Nevada, USA.
According to former IBF champion Brian Mitchell, the fight against Carbajal was the defining moment in Matlala’s career.
“Carbajal had 49 wins, 47 of those by KO. He was inducted to the International Hall of Fame years later. But Baby Jake stopped him in nine rounds – and that was a remarkable achievement. He went to Carbajal’s backyard and came back with victory.”
Erstwhile BSA board member and former boxing commentator Dumile Mateza agreed: “Carbajal was a litmus test for Baby Jake. But Baby Jake won that fight. When he came back as champion, the SA boxing commission refused to recognise that IBA title,” said Mateza, who described Matlala as somebody who embodied what a human being should be.
Mitchell went further by likening Matlala’s personality to that of the late Nelson Mandela.
“He was the Nelson Mandela of boxing. They had the same mannerism – they were polite, generous, gave up their time and had humility,” Mitchell said.
Matlala’s defences of the IBA title were also outnumbered by the fingers on only one hand.
After making three defences, he went on to collide with countryman Makepula, who was then unbeaten after 16 fights, in a fierce battle for the WBO junior flyweight diadem at Carnival City in 2000.
Interestingly, Matlala and Makepula were later to be linked by the common denominator that was their membership of Rhema Bible Church in Randburg.
But when they met in the ring, Matlala lost on a controversial unanimous points decision, but he still retained his fighting spirit that saw him returning to the same Carnival City in Brakpan and winning the WBU junior flyweight title in the second fight after his loss to Makepula.
The impressive fourth round TKO victory over Todd Makelim saw Matlala achieving the distinction of becoming the first four-time world champion from South Africa.
As he had done with his previous three titles, Matlala continued being a man of few title defences.
He put his WBU title on the line only twice.
The second time was the last time South Africans – and the world – were afforded the chance to witness the diminutive Matlala step into the ring for a fight.
In what was a memorable farewell fight attended by Mandela as well as American actor Will Smith among many high-profile guests, Matlala stopped Juan Herrera in seven rounds to bow out on a high from the sport he had actively participate in for 22 years.
It was commendable how, as a then 40-year-old, Matlala performed exceptionally well against Herrera. Such a performance was married to the fact that as a sportsman, Matlala led a clean life.
After his very last fight against Herrera, Matlala handed over his WBU belt to Madiba, who he had stated on numerous occasions had inspired him in his boxing career.
It is quite a striking coincidence that Matlala died just two days after Mandela, a man who was at ringside for the final chapter in the boxing journey of the former SA and Transvaal champion.
Their journeys on Earth ended only two days apart and they both were fighters of a different kind – one fought against apartheid while the other fought against taller opponents in the ring.
Matlala later told me in an interview: “It was such an honour to have Mandela at ringside. He is a true champion because he knocked out apartheid. For me to have been a champion it was because of his sacrifices.”
BSA acting chief executive Loyiso Mtya said: “Maybe it was written in the stars because when Baby Jake had his last fight, Tata was there. Jake jumped out of the ring and gave his belt to Mandela. They had to leave this world together and what an indelible mark they both left.”
Mtya said Matlala proved the old saying that it’s not the size of the dog in the fight it’s the size of the fight in the dog.
Size was, of course, always a big part of Matlala’s career even before he turned professional.
“We had the toughest task at Dube Boxing Club – that of getting opponents for him. Jake would be in a division that did not exist anywhere in the world. We’d expect him to be in the junior flyweight but his weight would be 44kg.
“At one weigh-in after he had failed to make the weight, we told Jake go and drink water and he came back to the scales. He would then weigh 47kg, full of water! Then thereafter we would tell Jake: ‘hamba uyogabha mfana wam’,” said Steve Masike of Dube Boxing Club, where Matlala’s career started.
But the first opponent in Matlala’s career was his own protective mother.
“His mother was not okay with the idea of her son being a boxer. She asked her husband (who was also a boxer at Dube Boxing Club) why we wanted to put Baby Jake in the ring when he as a father came back with a nose half-skewed from the gym,” said Masike.
Another opponent in Matlala’s pre-professional career was the railway line that divided Meadowlands and Dube.
Former BSA chairman Dr Peter Ngatane explained: “He grew up in Meadowlands and trained in Dube. For him to get to Dube, he had to cross a railway line.
“Each time you had to cross to either Dube or Meadowlands, you had to fight your way through as part of that territory superiority.”
It was the rough of the streets of Soweto that prepared him for one of the toughest fights early in his career – against the late Mveleli Luzipho for the SA title in 1983 in front of a hostile East London crowd.
Mateza recalled that fight. “In those days you didn’t go to East London and come back with a win unless you knocked out the opponent and probably the referee too. Baby Jake went there and knocked out the late Luzipho in 11 rounds. He returned to Joburg with the title. That was the measure of the man that Baby Jake was.”
Minister of Sports Fikile Mbalula said the reason South Africa did not embrace mediocrity today was because there were people like Matlala who were synonymous with excellence.
“He was not a mediocre fighter. He was an out and out champion. This is what South Africa must be about. In honour of Baby Jake and Nelson Mandela, let’s conclude in our hearts and minds to do away with mediocrity.
“We’ll never forget what he did for this country. We will celebrate his life, even if it means naming a street or a boxing club after him. He left us as a great patriot and a great South African,” Mbalula said.
Matlalaleaves behind his wife, Mapule, and two sons – Tshepo and Masego.
Many who knew Matlala as a family man can testify with thousands of tales of how much Mapule, who is a pastor at Rhema Bible Church, was a big part of Jake’s life.
Baby Jake and Mapule were one of the few famous couples that were together for more than three decades – having been together for a remarkable 33 years, 23 of which were in marriage.
After Jake had retired, the couple decided to pursue a joint venture in becoming boxing promoters – an idea that had the backing of top promoter and one of Jake’s close boxing friends Branco Milenkovic.
But owing to Jake’s illness, the idea never took off.
Dr Ngatane told of how much his Mapule and kids meant to Matlala. “The wife that he married as a young boy from Dube is still there. At one time it was fashionable for sports stars to divorce wives but Jake never did that.
“He was a true believer in education, his sons are a true example of what a father does to his children – they are both well educated.”
In one of the interactions I had with Jake, we were in East London for a tournament organised by Milenkovic while the two were still partners at Branco Sports Productions.
But we nearly did not make it to the fight when, on arriving at the airport, we were given a manual car by the rental company.
Only a few minutes into our journey, the short man that was Jake started struggling with changing the gears from the high seat that could not be lowered any further.
He parked on the side of the road and asked me to take the wheel.
But I told him “I do not have a driving licence” and he drove on despite the “stop-start” the car was subjected to, because he insisted we should not chance me driving without a licence.
Such was Jake – a man who never took chances and never cut corners. A man of integrity and honesty at all times.
A man who related to all irrespective of their social status.
You would never, for even a minute, get the feeling you were talking to a man who had won four world titles, had fought all over the world and had wined and dined high-profile political and sporting people in his life.
He remained a simple, humble man who would never fail to acknowledge how great God had been in his life and career.
Matlala, the figurative dynamite that came in a small package, was one of the greatest boxing gifts God bestowed this generation.
He will always be remembered by many who have had the privilege of watching any of his 68 fights, of which he won 53, lost 13 and drew two.
Matlala’s memorial service, which was held at Nasrec Indoor Centre this week, was attended by a number of high-profile dignitaries such as Mbalula, Gauteng Sports MEC Lebogang Maile, politician Letlapa Mphahlele, first-ever BSA chairperson Mthobi Tyamzashe, Safa chief executive Dennis Mumble, former Safa president Kirsten Nematandani, Leslie Sedibe of Proudly SA, several current and retired boxers as well as soccer players.
He was buried at Westpark Cemetery on Friday, just days before his hero, Mandela, was laid to rest several hundred kilometres away in Qunu.
He will be sadly missed.
May the soul of the little big man rest in peace.
* Moholola is an award-winning boxing writer and sports journalist.