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.

News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
Arts and Entertainment
The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia was one of the 300 US cinemas screening
filmTim Walker settles down to watch the controversial gross-out satire
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Sport
Rooney celebrates with striker-partner Radamel Falcao after the pair combine to put United ahead
footballManchester United vs Newcastle match report
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

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

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all