Boxing Short: Remembering Jacob “Baby Jake” Matlala

There’s a popular misconception that boxers need to be big. That they need to be towering infernos of fury, 6ft something of intimidation, looming large in the ring. Of course, for many heavyweight boxers that’s probably true. But look lower down, and you’ll find the story of a boxer at 4ft 10in – one Jacob Matlala.

The name might not be a familiar one. Matlala didn’t just fly under-the-radar in the ring, he did outside of it too. However, the man nicknamed “Baby Jake” is a sporting legend in his home country of South Africa. When Nelson Mandela was asked who his favourite boxer was of all-time, he replied: “Oh, it has to be Baby Jake.” And when Nelson Mandela thinks you’re the greatest, you must feel like the goddamn greatest.

Outside of South Africa, Matlala didn’t receive such accolades and praise though. He was the shortest boxer in the history of the sport. Such a fact meant he seemed under-valued and under-appreciated in many international boxing circles. Perhaps it was the appearance that fooled them; his lack of height and size throwing them off and making them think he was little more than a gimmick. He wasn’t though. In a career that spanned 22 years, Matlala won two world titles in two different weight classes. He was a fighter and he was not to be taken lightly.

The Early Years

Born in South Africa in 1962, Matlala didn’t seem destined to become a brawler. He had a decent up-bringing and was well-educated too. Coupled with his diminutive size, boxing was not an immediately obvious career choice for him. However, he took up the sport when he was 10 years old “just for fun” and he didn’t look back. Throughout the eighties he made a name for himself locally, winning the South African light flyweight title on more than one occasion.

He’d fight as a flyweight internationally though and in 1993, in his second world title fight, he won the WBO flyweight title in Glasgow from Pat Clinton:

It was a title that Matlala would hold on to for nearly two years, before losing it to Mexican, Alberto Jimenez. “Baby Jake” wasn’t done yet though with boxing.

Lighter And Better

The Jimenez fight had taken a lot out of him, and it was perhaps as a result of this battering, that Matlala decided to drop back down to the light flyweight division. And it proved to be a shrewd move. Only nine months after his loss to Jimenez, he’d make his comeback in the title picture. Once again in Glasgow (the wee man seemed to enjoy fighting north of the border), Matlala would win another world title, this time the WBO light flyweight belt from Paul Weir:

He was gaining notoriety now in the boxing world as a fighter to be feared, not mocked. He successfully defended his title in the UK, America, and back home in South Africa throughout the rest of the nineties. Matlala even destroyed much-hyped American boxer, Michael Carbajal in Las Vegas in 1997. He was taking on, and taking out, all challengers to his throne.

Outside The Ring

Of course, nothing lasts forever. And even though Matlala would go undefeated for five years, his winning streak came to an end in 2000 when he lost to fellow South African, Masibulele Makepula. This marked the beginning of the end for Matlala, who’d start to wind down his career in the subsequent years. It wasn’t a happy time away from the boxing world for him though.

Some bad business ventures and declining health would leave him effectively bankrupt. He was also overshadowed by an affair he had with a singer in the nineties, whom later accused Matlala of rape. A letter he sent to her in which he confessed to this was leaked to the press, leaving his public image in tatters. There was no criminal investigation, however; Matlala later claiming the whole thing was a blackmail attempt by the woman, and he confessed and sent her money in order to avoid the publicity. The whole unsavory incident would cast a long shadow over the small man.

With his health getting worse in later years, Matlala eventually succumbed and he passed away in 2013 at the age of 51 – two days after Nelson Mandela’s death. Despite the question marks over his later troubles, he died a hero to many South Africans. He was proof that no matter how small you might be, your stature in life is only as big as your talent. And in that sense, “Baby Jake” was as big as they come.