Former sports writer Clinton van der Berg recalls the life of one of South Africa’s greatest boxers and the lasting impression he made.
Jacob 'Baby Jake' Matlala
August 1 1962 – December 7 2013
It was a measure of Baby Jake Matlala's status that Nelson Mandela used to joke that he never enjoyed being in his company. "He always gets a bigger cheer," the late president used to quip about the pint-sized boxer.
Fame came to Matlala late in his career but, when it did, he embraced it and used it to draw attention to charities and other deserving causes. He exuded natural warmth and, with his diminutive size and glowing smile, he became one of South Africa's most popular sportspeople.
The irony is that little in his early career suggested he would have the staying power or the ability to make it at boxing's elite level. Turning professional at the height of apartheid in 1980, Matlala lost two of his first three bouts.
The only child of a driver and a cook, he had two obvious shortcomings: he was tiny – just 1.47m – and he lacked a real punch. But Matlala wasn't to be deterred as he worked his way up the light-flyweight rankings under the care of the late trainer Theo Mthembu.
In his eighth fight, he won the South African "non-white" title and then he toured South Africa's small halls, fighting in places like the Diepkloof Community Hall, Uncle Tom's Hall, the Kwa Thema Civic Centre, the Vaal Showgrounds, New Brighton and Mdantsane.
Nineteen fights in three years made him one of the most active fighters in the country and if his purses were small, he happily gained the vital experience that would serve him well later in his career.
And then he ran into Vuyani "Wonder Boy" Nene in the mid-1980s. They fought each other four times and four times Nene won. Despite Matlala's relentless style, Nene simply had his measure. Matlala veered close to journeyman status but promoter Mike Segal saw something he liked and signed him up.
"I recognised his potential," he recalled. "I thought I could do something with him."
Little man from Soweto
Matlala won the unified South African title before, out of the blue, landing a crack at the world title against Northern Irishman Dave McAuley, the International Boxing Federation titleholder.
The moment was too much for Matlala, who wilted before being stopped in the 10th round. "He could have got up but didn't," Segal said wistfully.
But it was a turning point for the little man from Soweto.
Keen to get his confidence up, Segal fed him a few soft touches before matching him for the World Boxing Organisation (WBO) title.
In one of the outstanding performances of his 22-year fighting career, Matlala dominated Pat Clinton in his Scottish backyard, knocking the world champion out in the eighth round.
It was the beginning of a remarkable run as Matlala topped fight cards at Sun City, the Standard Bank Arena and London's famous York Hall. His tiny stature, good humour and affability with the public endeared him to everyone, not least Madiba, a former boxer himself, who called him often.
Matlala was at his very best in the 1990s, a period that yielded 20 wins against just two defeats and a single draw. He attributed his success to not smoking, drinking or using drugs. No one could believe that someone so small could beat anyone but Matlala was a ball of fire when the bell sounded.
He and Segal parted ways in 1996, which opened the door for Golden Gloves's Rodney Berman.
It was a smart move. Cedric Kushner, Berman's partner, soon arranged a "super fight" against legendary five-time world champion Michael Carbajal in Las Vegas in 1997. Matlala's purse was a career-high of R600 000.
But it was almost scuppered when Matlala, who used to promote safe sex in television adverts, was accused of raping a gospel singer at his home.
Berman knew that any such charge would blow the dream fight out of the water. The two parties met and, rather than engage in an unseemly court battle, settled on a R250 000 payment by Matlala to his accuser.
(Years later, a financially strapped Matlala would demand the money back from Berman, who showed him the door.)
The tiny South African stunned the boxing world with his unrelenting attack and battered the future Hall of Famer into submission in the ninth round. The South African's punch stats confirmed his dominance: he threw a staggering 1 115 punches to the American's 620.
Despite the rape claim, the public's support of Matlala never wavered. On his return, he was given a hero's welcome – a fitting honour for one of the great performances in South African boxing history.
Matlala boxed on, but in 2000, when he fought former Olympic flagbearer Masibulele "Hawk" Makepula in a massive local showdown, it was obvious that the fire was gone. The wear and tear of over 60 fights was evident as the younger, hungrier challenger captured the vacant WBO light-flyweight title.
Unusually for a veteran fighter, Matlala was permitted the dignity of exiting with a winning run.
Baby Jake Matlala in 2011. (Gallo)
In March 2002, he was carried into the Carnival City ring on a throne. He promptly signed off by knocking out Colombia's Juan Herrera.
Mandela was in the audience and Matlala, still dripping with sweat, walked to where he was seated and presented Mandela with his World Boxing Union championship belt.
"This is for you, our greatest world champion," Matlala told him.
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.
More recently, a collaboration with his gospel-singing wife to market and distribute a DVD of Matlala's fights and a CD of her music never came to fruition.
Frequent hospital visits
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 last Saturday, aged 51.
Matlala is survived by his wife, Mapula, and two sons, Tshepo and Masego.