'Baby Jake' laid to rest

Baby Jake Matlala (Gallo Images)
Baby Jake Matlala (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - Standing just 1.48 meters (4-foot-10) and with especially short arms — a big problem for a boxer - Jacob Matlala rose from early hardship in Soweto to be a four-time world champion and one of South Africa's most popular sportsmen.

No wonder he was also one of Nelson Mandela's favorites.

Matlala died last Saturday aged 51 after a struggle with lung problems, passing two days after Mandela. He was buried on Friday in Johannesburg, two days before Mandela's state funeral.

Yet even in the midst of its deep mourning for beloved statesman Mandela, also known by his clan name Madiba, South Africa made sure to also remember "Baby Jake."

South African President Jacob Zuma, the ruling African National Congress party, and even Mandela's family shared words of tribute for a boxer referred to by fans as "the little man with the big heart."

"With his tiny frame and lethal blows that achieved him iconic status among South Africans, Matlala demonstrated the greatest that a combination of a good head and a good heart could achieve," the ANC said, playing on a famous Mandela quote that "a good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination."

In perhaps its greatest praise, the ANC, the political party of Mandela, said Matlala showed the same good characteristics "that Madiba embodied."

Matlala was so popular with Mandela that the former president attended his final fight in 2002, when Matlala successfully defended his WBU junior flyweight title and made his way into the crowd afterward to present the belt to Mandela, who was watching with Hollywood actor Will Smith.

In a country where heroes are often made to battle their way to the top through serious challenges, Matlala was an especially popular champion for many South Africans.

"Even with the disadvantages he had of being 4-foot-10 with short arms, he was a brilliant fighter," said Brian Mitchell, South Africa's former WBA and IBF super featherweight champion and a contender alongside Matlala for the title of South Africa's greatest ever fighter.

Mitchell said Matlala was one of Mandela's favorite boxers for his humility and generosity outside the ring as much as his determination and courage in it.

"He would sign autographs for children for hours and they would stand in queues. It was never too much trouble for him," Mitchell told The Associated Press. "His kindness was like the great Madiba."

Matlala won the WBO flyweight and junior flyweight titles as well as the IBA light flyweight and WBU junior flyweight crowns, and although he never won one of the big belts, his "defining moment," Mitchell said, came in 1997 when he beat American Michael "Little Hands of Stone" Carbajal in a major upset in Las Vegas.

Matlala had a 53-13-2 record in a 22-year professional career appreciated by one of history's colossal figures.

"He was a small giant ... whose impact far outweighed its size," the ANC said.

Family, friends and fans of Jacob “Baby Jake” Matlala are invited to share their memories and tributes, and to light a candle for him, on his profile at Remembered.co.za.

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