100 World Class South Africans: ‘Baby Jake’ Matlala

2013-07-02 12:00

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Dynamite in a small package

Will Smith pitched up to watch Baby Jake’s final fight before retirement in 2002, and after he won the bout the boxing champ presented Nelson Mandela (who was also in the audience) with his victory belt ‘as a token of appreciation’.

Such was Matlala’s popularity and skill; he gave a human face to the brutal sport of boxing.

He stands just 1.47m tall, the smallest world champion but the biggest fighter in South Africa in his heyday.

He was the first, and only, local boxer to win four world titles in three different weight divisions.

Matlala made short people walk tall; it was pure poetry watching the man fight with the precision of a surgeon, cutting far taller rivals down to size.

His favourite tactic was punching his opponents on the chin as they looked down on him.

His career lasted 30 years, 22 of those as a professional fighter.

He notched up 68 paid fights, 19 world title fights and 54 victories (26 knockouts) – the most of any South African boxer.

Out of the ring, this big-hearted dynamo dedicates his time to charities, including the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation and HIV/Aids projects, and gives motivational talks.

His message? As he told The New Age last year, ‘If you don’t stand up for yourself, people will never take you seriously and you will never be counted.’

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