Biographies of Famous South Africans
Special South Africans


Those who have inspired us. Those who have defined us.
Those who have shown us our common humanity.

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Jacob 'Baby Jake' Matlala
Boxing Champion
1 August 1962 - 7 December 2013

'Baby Jake' MatlalaSaturday, 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 told him.

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 sourly.

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.



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