“Baby Jake” Matlala, watched by former President Nelson Mandela and top Hollywood actor Will Smith, brought the curtain down on his 22-year professional boxing career on March 3, 2002 with a seventh-round stoppage win over Juan Herrera to retain his WBU junior flyweight title.
It was a fitting end to an illustrious career that has earned Matlala legendary status in South African boxing.
His record, falling at one stage to 22 wins, one draw and seven losses, finished up at 52 victories, two draws and 12 losses. Along the way he collected the WBO flyweight, WBO junior flyweight, IBA junior flyweight and WBU junior flyweight titles, becoming the only South African boxer to win four world titles.
Shortest ever world champion
The shortest ever world champion, Matlala began his career on February 2, 1980 with a fourth-round victory over Fraser Plaatjie in Port Elizabeth. A year later, Matlala had his second professional fight, which he lost.
However, five fights later – four wins and a draw – Matlala landed the Transvaal junior flyweight title with a fifth-round technical knockout win over Simon Moema. It took him three more contests to become the South African junior flyweight champion.
He successfully defended the title twice before suffering a 12th-round loss to Mveleli Luzipho in October 1983, dropping his record to 10 wins, one draw and two losses. The little man with the all-action style then claimed eight wins in succession, including his first victory over an overseas opponent. He then challenged Luzipho in a return match for the South African title, which ended in failure with another 12-round loss in November 1985.
Not much taller than a Hobbit
At 4ft 10in or 147cm, “Baby Jake” is not much taller than the average Lord of the Rings hobbit. This, he tells Lucille Davie, is part of the reason why he quit boxing. He had run out of small people to fight.
Matlala’s record was blotted when he suffered successive defeats to one fighter. In early 1996, he faced Vuyani Nene in Port Elizabeth and lost. After beating Pillay Duiker to retain the Transvaal junior flyweight title, Baby Jake again fought Nene, exactly one year after his loss to the Eastern Cape fighter, but this time for the South African title. Nene once more had the challenger’s number, stopping Matlala in the 11th round.
Lost to Nene
After a points victory over Kirk Morris, the diminutive Matlala took on Nene on November 1, 1987, seven months after his unsuccessful challenge for the national title. He lasted the distance, but for the third time Nene outboxed him.
Matlala subsequently racked up another three victories, including one over Daniel Ward, who later became the Commonwealth flyweight champion. These wins raised his record to 22 wins, one draw and six losses. Nene once again proved to be Matlala’s nemesis, defeating him on points for the South African title. At this stage of his career, in 1988, Matlala had lost seven fights, four of those to Nene.
If Matlala was discouraged, he did not show it. The following year, in 1999, he again challenged for a South African title, this time as a flyweight. He came up short, however, losing on points to Jaji Sibali. He then registered a run of eight victories, including wins over two Mexican fighters and a successful outing against Wele Maqolo to lift the vacant South African junior flyweight title.
World title crack
After retaining his title against Ndoda Mayende, Matlala had his first crack at a world title in September 1991 when he took on Dave McCauley for the IBF flyweight title in Belfast. He failed in his attempt, suffering a 10th-round knockout at the hands of the Irishman.
Three wins later, including a successful defence of his South African crown and a victory over Mexico’s Raul Acosta, Matlala challenged Pat Clinton for the WBO flyweight title in May 1993. In front of Clinton’s home town supporters in Glasgow, the South African boxer overwhelmed his opponent to capture his first world title on an eighth-round technical knockout.
He added another four wins to his record, including three in title defences, before suffering his 10th career loss to Alberto Jiminez who stopped him in the eighth round at Hammanskraal in February 1995. His next bout, three months later, ended in a draw against Liberia’s Sam Stewart.
Two-time world champion
Two fights later, Matlala was a world champion for the second time. In November 1995, he defeated Paul Weir on a technical decision in five rounds to secure the WBO junior flyweight title as Glasgow again proved to be his happy hunting ground.
In early 1996, Matlala again took on Weir in Liverpool and retained his WBO crown. After a 12-round victory over Mickey Cantwell, he challenged Michael Carbajal for the IBA junior flyweight title. The experts argued that this would be the toughest fight of Baby Jake’s career, against a fighter regarded by many as the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world.
Fighting in Las Vegas on 18 July 1997, before a large American television audience, Matlala delivered the best performance of his career, battering Carbajal for nine rounds before the referee stopped the fight, with the Mexican clearly a beaten man. That victory raised Matlala’s profile and stock considerably and, of course, earned him another world title.
SA vs SA
After a further four wins, including two title defences, Matlala relinquished the IBA title to face another South African, Hawk Makepula, in February 2000 for the vacant WBO junior flyweight title. It was a bout the South African boxing public had been clamouring for, but it ended in disappointment for Matlala, who lost on a controversial points decision.
For the second time in his career he suffered two defeats in succession when his former sparring partner, Peter Culshaw, beat him on points for the WBU flyweight title in May of the same year.
In February 2001, Matlala once more tasted world championship success, easily defeating Australia’s Todd Makelin in four rounds to claim the vacant WBU junior flyweight crown. In September, he retained the crown with a win in five rounds over Mickey Cantwell.
Finally, Matlala drew the curtain on his career with the victory over Herrera, 11 years his junior.
“Baby Jake” Matlala will be remembered as an all-action fighter who overcame his height and reach disadvantage by crowding his opponents, throwing a relentless barrage of punches. He will also be remembered for the fantastic condition that he kept himself in for his fights, right up to the age of 40.
Above all, however, it was the little man’s big heart that captured the imagination of the South African public. Matlala always gave his best, earning the respect of opponents and spectators alike.
Unsuccessful in so many attempts at winning South African titles, Baby Jake simply trained even harder, kept coming back – and suddenly started collecting world titles.
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