Baby Jake: SA’s boxing giant

8 August 2003

There has never been a boxing champ as small as South African boxing giant Jacob “Baby Jake” Matlala. At just 4ft 10in or 147cm, he is not much taller than the average 3ft 6in or 107cm tall Lord of the Rings hobbit.

This, he tells me, as I feel like a giant looking down on him from my 5ft 8in (in heels) or 173cm, is part of the reason why he quit boxing at the age of 40 last year. He had run out of small people to fight.

In a career that spans 30 years, he has always fought boxers of the same weight – flyweight – but who were taller than him. But flyweight fighters have all retired, and the next generation are still in training. He says: “There were no big names left to fight”.

Was it a case of a small man doing a big sport to compensate for his height? Not at all. An only child and born in Meadowlands, Soweto, he learnt boxing from his father, who used to box for relaxation. So when the young Matlala went to the gym at the age of 10, he knew the basic moves, and slipped into the gym boxing culture very easily.

Matlala has a vital energy about him, a ready smile and a relaxed confidence, which boils down to him quietly bubbling with charm. It’s easy to understand, when meeting him one on one, why people approach him in shopping malls or at the movies or when he goes to a restaurant, and greet him like an old friend. He is never impatient with his fans, and they are everywhere – he is always ready to stop and talk, and give them that smile.

“Height is not an issue, it’s in the mind,” he says. Because of his height, his modis operandi in the ring is carefully worked out: “I work the body, then the head will come.” By that he means that he constantly throws punches at his opponent’s body until he tires, then the head drops, and that’s when Matlala gets his final punches in.

The evidence is there – in 1996 in Las Vegas he left opponent Michael Carbajal a beaten man after nine rounds, with both eyes badly cut.

And, says Matlala, he has perfected a punch that is unique to him, because of his height: “I hit over-arm, it’s my best punch.” And of course, he’s learnt to avoid his opponent’s punches, and throw more punches.

The record books are proof that he knows his stuff: 52 wins, two draws and 12 losses over his career, with four world titles to his name – the World Boxing Organisation flyweight title in 1993, the light flyweight title in 1995, the International Boxing Association junior flyweight title in 1997, and the World Boxing Union flyweight title in 2001.

Matlala believes that boxing is an art. Boxers must be smart and enjoy the sport, and never fight outside the ring. “Mike Tyson just wants to kill, he isn’t a smart boxer.”

Just for the record, “flyweight” means that the boxer weighs in at 50kg. But now, out of training and retired, Matlala weighs in at 59kg. He says that when still boxing, it would take him two months to get to the right weight: “The first month is used to drop weight, the second month to prepare tactics.” In addition, he would monitor his diet.

Those tactics extend to “persistence and having a good plan”. In 1983 he won the South African flyweight title, but lost it the same year to Vuyani Nene. It took him seven years to beat Nene, losing to him four times in the interim.

For Matlala, more important than these aspects of his training is “discipline, dedication and positiveness”. He doesn’t drink or smoke, and used to get to the Dube Boys Boxing Club – now the revamped Dube Recreation Centre – at 5.30am, skip for half an hour to warm up, and be ready for boxing training by 6am.

He is impatient of those who are not disciplined in their training. “Now they get to the gym at 5.45am, and are not ready to start training at 6am as they haven’t warmed up yet.”

His recounts that his wife of 13 years says that he won’t be good at training young boxers because he has a problem with people who are not disciplined. But that’s hard to believe – he is very good-natured and generous, particularly to his fellow Johannesburgers. Besides training youngsters at Dube gym, he gives talks on motivation and discipline, on Aids awareness, and promotes boxing.

He recently gave a motivation talk to a group of policemen in Hillbrow, talking particularly about discipline. He talks to youngsters in Soweto, also to street kids in the city, about Aids. He is an official City Aids ambassador.

His message reflects his disciplined philosophy on life – he preaches abstinence. “It worked for me and my wife. We courted for eight years, I paid lobola in 1988, and we got married in 1990.” He discourages young people from living together. “You must have pride and family values – we lack them these days,” he says.

He had a very ordinary upbringing. “My parents taught me to be focused. I went to school in Soweto; when I came home I did household chores.” He went to Wits University after school, but completed his BCom degree at Unisa.

When he started boxing, his father encouraged him. His mother didn’t – she worried that he’d get injured and possibly killed in the ring.

Matlala is also involved in Johannesburg’s “Project 100 Spots”, an illegal dumping pilot project in Soweto. Along with other city celebrities, like Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse, he has been appointed champion of the project.

He donates pairs of boxing gloves for auction to various charities. He says: “Whatever I have I share with others. I love kids; if I had serious money I would sponsor kids.”

Matlala has two boys, aged 13 and six, who enjoy sport, but he is not pushing them to box. But they do watch it on TV.

His role models in the boxing world are Sugar Ray Leonard, Joe Frazier and Muhammed Ali. “These boxers are not big-headed, they always keep a low profile.” Another role model is Nelson Mandela. The reason? “He is so humble and forgiving.”

He is celebrated in his hometown in other ways. There’s a Baby Jake’s Diner in the Carlton Centre in the CBD, open since 1997. There used to be four Baby Jake Diners around town, but the others closed. Baby Jake does patronise the restaurant, but he says it is “always full”.

At some outlets you can buy Baby Jake ice cream, and there used to be a soft drink available called Baby Jake. His famous nickname also appeared on a roll-on deodorant and razor blades.

Writers Jack Blades and Theo Mthembu made their contribution with their biography, Baby Jake the legend.

Johannesburg man
Matlala is very much a Jo’burg man. He describes the city as the “best place”: “everything is happening here – boxers get sponsorship here, they train here, they live here”.

He has broadened his sporting achievements: in 2001 he did the 120km Dusi Canoe Race; in 2001 he ran the Soweto Marathon; and this year he did the 90km Comrades Marathon as a celebrity. He’s planning to do the 2004 Comrades race more seriously, and the 56km Two Oceans race.

There’s another aspect to his life: religion. He says he prays before every fight. “My wife taught me to give the glory back to the Almighty. One person is chosen by the Almighty to be outstanding. There is time for everything, God will know, we must wait our turn.”

In the future he sees himself being a top businessman with his own brand of sports merchandise, including gloves, caps and t-shirts.

I ask him what his favourite book is. It’s no surprise when he says it’s Anthony Robbins’ Awaken the giant within.

Source: City of Johannesburg website

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