'Baby' Jake Matlala: World champion in two weight divisions who was named as his favourite boxer by Nelson Mandela

 

Nelson Mandela was four days out of prison when I asked him to name his favourite boxer. "Oh, it has to be Baby Jake," he said, beaming with delight, having been serious and sombre for the previous hour. Yes, Baby Jake Matlala." Soon after, the pair met for the first of numerous times and seemed to relish each other's company, sometimes joking about their size disparity. The world's shortest boxer at 4ft 10in, who died two days after his friend and hero, was the darling of the country's sports-mad public – a crossover figure whose charm and ebullience endeared him to the white suburbs almost as much as in his home crowd in Soweto.

Matlala was also the scourge of Britain's best little men during his eight years of holding various versions of world titles in two weight divisions, making six trips to England and Scotland, disappointing the home fans on each occasion. He was comically small, with a big bald head and an old man's face that made people laugh, and he appreciated the joke. When his opponents saw him for the first time they also tended to smile, until the bell sounded. He'd regularly give away more than six inches in height and a stone in weight, but in the course of his 22-year career he developed a deceptively difficult style. His tight defence and head movement made him extremely difficult to tag and his impeccable timing magnified his power. He was also a teetotaller and an intense trainer, allowing him to throw more punches than any of his opponents.

In 1994, after he stopped London's Francis Ampofo in nine rounds, I asked him to describe his style. He took my hand, as was his way, and beamed. "They come out fast; I start slow, but with every round I step up the pace and the punishment until I'm hitting them as hard as I can and as often as I can move my arms, and because I'm so short I concentrate on the body and I just work it over mercilessly until their resistance is gone."

It wasn't always so. As the only child of a driver and cook, his working class background was hardly desperate, and he said he never had a street fight because "everybody just seemed to like me". He was also top of his class and went on to complete a BComm degree at one of his country's leading universities.

He took to boxing as a 10-year-old "just for fun", won 198 out of 199 amateur fights and turned professional at the age of 18. He sometimes weighed just over seven stone, but the straw-weight division had not yet been introduced so he fought at light-flyweight (7st 10lb). He won most of his fights, but there was one man he couldn't better, a stylist from the Eastern Cape, Vuyani Nene. They fought five times and Nene won all five.

But while Nene partied his way out of the picture, Matlala continued to improve. He finally won the national title and his promoter secures him a challenge for the IBF flyweight title (two divisions above his natural weight), against Northern Ireland's Dave McCauley in Belfast, but he was stopped in 10 rounds.

He ironed out his flaws, trained even harder and in 1993 travelled to Glasgow to batter Pat Clinton to defeat in eight rounds for the WBO flyweight title. He defended it three times before agreeing to go ahead with a defence against a talented Mexican, Alberto Jimenez, weeks after intestinal surgery. He lost in eight, suffering from acute abdominal pains.

They said he was finished at the age of 33, but he dropped down in weight, returned to Glasgow and relieved Scotland's Paul Weir of his WBO light-flyweight title, part of a five-year unbeaten spell. The highpoint came in 1997, when he was chosen as an easy opponent for the golden boy of the lighter weights, Michael Carbajal, in a Las Vegas fight screened on HBO. Matlala, 35, averaged 130 punches per round to stop the A-list American in the ninth.

On his last visit to Britain at the age of 39, he overwhelmed the former British flyweight champion, Mickey Cantwell, in five. He retired soon after to pursue his business interests.

There was another side to Jake Matlala. In 1998 he had an extra-marital affair with a singer who then demanded "compensation" in exchange for silence, and settled for R250 000 plus a written admission of guilt to rape – which was then leaked to the local press. Matlala said he only agreed because he was being blackmailed and insisted the fling with the singer was entirely consensual. "I know it wasn't a good thing to do," he told me, "but I wanted to avoid all that publicity because I needed to protect my family and my reputation."

This business seemed to have no impact on his immense reputation at home and he continued to prosper and to visit Mandela. But over the last five years his health declined, with regular visits to hospital for pneumonia, depleting his financial reserves.

Jacob Matlala, boxer: born Soweto 8 January 1962; married Mapule (two children); died 7 December 2013.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Convicted art fraudster John Myatt
art

Life and Style
fashion

News
The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
News
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleFormer Newsnight presenter is being touted for a brand new role
News
The two-year-old said she cut off her fringe because it was getting in her eyes
news
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

h2 Recruit Ltd: Sales Executive - Ceiling and Flooring - £26,000 OTE

£26000 per annum + pension + career progression: h2 Recruit Ltd: An excellent ...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - Credit Reports - £100,000 OTE

£50000 - £100000 per annum + benefits: h2 Recruit Ltd: Are you a high achievin...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Sales Executive - Meetings & Events (MICE) - £40,000 OTE

£30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits: h2 Recruit Ltd: Are you a high achieving...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Sales Manager -Business Intelligence Software- £100,000 OTE

£50000 - £100000 per annum + benefits: h2 Recruit Ltd: Are you a high achievin...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game