/ 11 December 2013

Baby Jake hailed as best of his generation

Baby Jake Matlala.
Baby Jake Matlala.

Jacob "Baby Jake" Matlala represented the best there was in boxing, Gauteng sport MEC Lebogang Maile said at his memorial service in Nasrec, Johannesburg, on Wednesday.

"We are gathered to celebrate the life of a giant," Maile said of the diminutive Matlala who, at 147cm, was the shortest man to have been a world champion.

"He was one of the best from his generation. He was a very decent human being who lived a clean life personified by victories and defeats, and he was the epitome of a true champion."

The boxing fraternity flocked to pay tribute to the four-time world flyweight champion who died in Johannesburg on Saturday, aged 51.

Former world welterweight champion Jan Bergman reminded the gathering that the memorial service was about the demise of a great boxer, and delivered his eulogy with tears in his eyes and an unsteady voice.

"News of his death has left me numb. He contributed towards the building of this Jan Bergman standing here today, and he was godfather to my son," Bergman said.

"He taught us never to give up. Baby Jake was defeated several times and still he went on until he became a champion four times. He was super-fit and a very resilient man."

Matlala will always be remembered for his humility, Peter Ngatane said at the boxing legend's memorial service. Ngatane is president of the Commonwealth Boxing Council and former chairperson of Boxing South Africa (BSA).

"He was very spiritual and always insisted that after every training session at the Dube Boxing Club [in Soweto] that we must pray, as he felt the world was not always a safe place," he said.

"He took education very seriously and encouraged fellow boxers to upgrade their qualifications, and led by example as he himself was a BComm graduate." But he also understood boxing could be brutal, Ngatane said.

Former boxers Dingaan Thobela, known as "The Rose of Soweto" and Masibulele "The Hawk" Makepula were also at the service. The hall was set up as a mock boxing ring and was where pre-fight weigh-ins took place in the 1990s.

Makepula, now a pastor, conducted the opening prayer. He fought and beat Matlala in February 1990.

Arguably the most successful boxer produced by South Africa, Matlala, the four-time world flyweight (50kg) champion, was born in Meadowlands, Soweto on August 1, 1962. Matlala's professional career began in Port Elizabeth, in the Eastern Cape, in February 1980, and, by the time he retired in March 2002, his record stood at more than 50 victories.

His titles included World Boxing Organisation flyweight champion in 1993, the light flyweight title in 1995, the International Boxing Association junior flyweight title in 1997 and the World Boxing Union (WBU) flyweight title in 2001.

He was the only South African boxer to have won four world titles and was the shortest man to have been a world champion.

His death came just days after that of former president Nelson Mandela, who was a boxer in his younger days. Mandela and American actor Will Smith attended Matlala's farewell fight. Afterwards, Matlala presented his WBU belt to Mandela.

When he retired, Matlala remained actively involved in the community, helped to raise funds for HIV programmes and supported the South African Police Service in its campaign to get members fit.

In 2010, Golden Gloves boxing promoter Rodney Berman arranged a black-tie charity fight called the Night of the Little Big Man to raise funds for Matlala to cover his medical costs after he was hospitalised for weeks, reportedly with double pneumonia.

The Rhema Church, of which Matlala was a member, also called on the public to help raise funds for him, and SuperSport agreed to sponsor the broadcast of the charity event. At the time, Berman's publicist, Terry Pettifer, who has himself since died, told the Times newspaper that Matlala had "lost everything and needs all the help he can get".

Matlala is survived by his wife, who was his childhood sweetheart, and two sons. – Sapa