July 19, 1997 - Las Vegas Review-Journal
'Baby Jake' Matlala went from being the shortest
professional boxer in the world to being the shortest
world champion. The 4-foot-8 Matlala stopped Michael
Carbajal in the ninth round of their scheduled
12-rounder to capture a minor light flyweight title on
the undercard of the Johnny Tapia-Danny Romero fight at
the Thomas & Mack Center.
Saturday 2 March 2002 - Brakpan
Jacob 'Baby Jake' Matlala threw the final punches of his
superlative career at the Big Top Arena at Carnival
City. Matlala ended the fight as he had so many others
in his astounding 30-year career, by stopping the
Colombian Juan Herrara in a WBU junior flyweight title
fight in 1min 43sec of the seventh round.
Apart from the massive crowd, which filled the
5000-seater arena, many luminaries came to pay homage to
the mercurial South African. Looking like a fighter half
his age, Matlala was so determined to leave the ring an
unbeaten four-time world champion that one was left with
the impression that Mike Tyson would have struggled
against him on the night.
The ultimate honour was bestowed on the South African
fighting legend, and member of Rhema Bible Church, when
former president Nelson Mandela arrived to pay tribute
to the 40-year-old 'Little Big Man' of world boxing in
his farewell fight. The crowd went wild when Madiba
arrived with American actor Will Smith halfway through
the WBU cruiserweight fight between Sebastiaan Rothmann
and Garry Delaney. It was an unexpected thrill for
Matlala. The astonishing thing about Matlala is that
even at 40 years old he managed to keep up such an
unbelievable work-rate and intensity in the fight. In
the end Herrara, 10 years the younger, was left a broken
man at the end of the fight, crying like a baby in his
corner. Matlala dominated the fight from start to
finish, with punishing combinations, and subtle footwork
kept him clear of a willing Herrera.
By the end of the fight, Matlala was so far on top, that
he gave the watching Will Smith (who starred in the
recent film Ali) an enduring memory, when executing the
"Ali shuffle" to which the watching thousands roared
their approval. Herrera, who gave a good account of
himself, just turned into a punching bag which Matlala
swayed and landed blows at will. Urged "Mnike - Give it
to him" by a huge crowd inside the 5000-seater venue,
Matlala shuffled like Muhammad Ali making Herrera miss
badly. The arena erupted. The stoppage was the 27th of a
career, which includes 54 wins, 12 losses and two draws.
Matlala, still dripping with sweat, walked to where
Mandela was seated and presented Mandela with his World
Boxing Union championship belt.
"This is for you, our greatest world champion," Matlala
There are so many memories from such a long career, but
one of the most abiding is the way in which the little
man took Mickey Cantwell apart in London in September
2001. Whilst he and most boxing observers expected a win
against an opponent who he had beaten as the WBO
junior-flyweight and titleholder, he refused to take his
opponent lightly. Cantwell had said he would retire win
or lose, which Matlala immediately pounced on saying:
"Psychologically, that's round one to me…. I'm
looking for a stoppage this time, although I'm
fit for 12 rounds. I don't underrate him. I
still respect him."
This was Matlala
demonstrating the professionalism which made him
stand head and shoulders above all South African
fighters for so many years.
Matlala hoped his high profile achievements in the ring
will enable him to give something back through
identifying potential starlets.
There is no doubt that the little man with fists of
fury, has represented South Africa not just to the best
of his ability, but with a pride and dignity that has
helped boxing in these modern times when many boxers
have fallen foul of the temptations with numerous
indiscretions. If, as was his wish, Matlala follows his
hero Mohammed Ali in having a biography made about him
on celluloid, nobody would deny that he fully deserved
such an accolade.
Despite having a BCom
degree, Matlala struggled to make his way after boxing.
A fast-food business (Baby Jake's Diner) flopped and a
partnership with promoter Branco Milenkovic ended
Matlala's frequent hospital visits put the squeeze on
him financially and, in 2011, Golden Gloves hosted a
benefit box 'n dine event at Emperor's Palace to raise
funds for Matlala. The fighter was so desperate he even
put one of his championship belts up for auction.
He died in hospital, aged 51.