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Steve Bunce: As Nelson Mandela's favourite fighter, 'Baby Jake' Matlala, who also died last week, gave hope to post-apartheid South Africa

'I said to Mandela the two most famous people in South Africa are also famous for their height,' Matlala once recalled

At just 4ft 10in, Jacob "Baby Jake" Matlala was tiny even for a small man and they say in Soweto, a city of boxing gyms, that the fighting idol cast a giant shadow down dusty streets that he could never quite leave.

Matlala died on Saturday. He was 51, a world champion at two weights, the winner of his nation's Presidential Sports Award and a friend of Nelson Mandela, who watched his fights from ringside and was the proud owner of a championship belt that Matlala won.

"We have lost two legends," said Sello Hatang, the chief executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, on Sunday.

In the end Baby Jake's diseased lungs broke, his fighting spirit remained strong, but his three-year struggle against double pneumonia and financial hardship was over. Since early 2010 the boxing community in South Africa had regularly found a way to pay for his medical expenses each time the proud little warrior's lungs failed; he had been close to death before.

Matlala had 18 world title fights in total, held four different belts at two different weights and finally walked away from boxing in 2002 after a win against Juan Herrera in Carnival City. Mandela was ringside, leading the cheers and accepting the WBU light-flyweight belt at the end of the fight.

"I said to him that the two most famous people in South Africa are also famous for their height," recalled Matlala. "It was a joke and he laughed."

When he was a boy he had been sent to the Dube boxing club in Soweto by his father and there he came under the control of "The Brown Panther", Theo Mthembu. The pair would remain together until the very end of Matlala's professional boxing career 32 years later after 68 fights.

"I walked away from boxing because there was nobody small enough left for me to fight," said Matlala. "I went to London, I went to Las Vegas and I beat them all – I had nobody else to meet."

He also had world title fights in Liverpool, Belfast, Glasgow and even squeezed one in at York Hall, Bethnal Green. The little fella adds a bit of glamour to the infamous roll-call of prizefighters that have fought inside the grubby east London retreat.

However, it was in Las Vegas in 1997 that Matlala stopped Michael Carbajal, America's best small man and former Olympic silver medalist, to win the IBA belt in 1997 and show just how good he was. It was an impressive victory, arguably his best, and should have led to big fights.

In London a few months earlier he won a split decision over Micky Cantwell for the WBO light-flyweight title belt. He returned in 2001 and stopped Cantwell in the fifth. Part of Matlala's attraction was that he fought like a slugger, went for the stoppage, and fans stopped noticing that he was under five feet; it has also been said that he was just 4ft 8in and that could be true.

"It was nice not to be the smallest man in the ring," said Cantwell, who was four inches taller. "He was always smiling, always smiling and saying 'sorry', right after putting the nut on me. That happens, no big deal. He was so hard, so tough. A really nice guy."

After walking away from boxing, Matlala was active in Soweto politics, selected also to be an Aids ambassador in Johannesburg and he was a high-profile part of a group devoted to making the renowned township a cleaner place. Matlala was a realist and knew that persuading people to stop illegally dumping rubbish was always going to be easier than asking them to stop killing each other.

Inside the ring he defied the odds several times, he defied the inches every time and he became a fighting icon during an unforgettable epoch. Mandela insisted that Matlala was his favourite fighter and, as a recommendation, it does not get any better.