By Jake Donovan
For 22 years, Baby Jake Matlala was living in-ring proof that big things come in small packages. The shortest fighter ever to win a major title was a true ambassador to the sport of boxing and to South Africa up until his untimely, which sadly occurred Saturday morning at the age of 51.
His death was announced by family spokesman Ray McCauley and also confirmed by his former promoter Rodney Berman.
“Another great fighter has died,” Berman wrote on his Twitter account. “Go well little man, you’ll be missed.”
A 22-year ring career included championship wins at flyweight and junior flyweight, in that order. At a mere 4’10”, Matlala was barely tall enough to get a clear view over the top rope of any regulation-sized boxing ring, but was simply an obstacle to conquer in his pursuit of the record books.
Matlala made history in May ’93, when a come-from behind 8th round stoppage of Pat Clinton earned him a flyweight belt, truly defining the term “boxing’s little big man.” His stay as flyweight titlist lasted nearly two years before conceding the crown to Alberto Jimenez, but bounced back later that year for his second major belt in scoring an upset points win over Paul Weir on the road in Scotland in their 108 lb. title fight.
The win over Weir was part of a 10-fight unbeaten streak spanning five years. Proving the feat was no fluke, Matlala agreed to a rematch, knocking out the Scot in 10 rounds five months later in England.
However, the win for which he remained best-known came in his first fight in the United States, also his lone HBO appearance. Matlala was matched with one of the greatest little big men in boxing history, but – at age 37 – showed no fear in dismantling Michael Carbajal in their July ’97 junior flyweight bout.
Matlala averaged more than 130 punches per round – good for 1115 total punches - through 8 ½ rounds of non-stop action before Carbajal was stopped due to several cuts. The American icon pleaded with the ringside physician to allow the bout to continue, but the steady stream of blood flowing over his eyes proved too hazardous.
The feat, coupled with his huge heart in and out of the ring, made Matlala a favorite of Nelson Mandela. The South African revolutionary was on hand for the final bout of Matlala’s career in 2002, at which point he was presented with the junior flyweight belt the boxer held at the time.
The win, a 7th round stoppage of Juan Herrera, granted Matlala, then 40 years old, a three-fight win streak to close out his career with a record of 53-13-2 (26KO).
Matlala’s death comes just two days after the passing of his hero. Mandela passed away on Thursday at age 95, living a remarkable life as one of the greatest figures in the history of mankind.
Sadly, the news of Matlala passing – as tragic as the announcement comes – was not a big surprise to those closest to him. The former two-division champ spent the last several years of his life in and out of the hospital battling pneumonia and lung problems. His condition and the constant treatment required eventually depleted his funds, though funds were raised to help cover medical costs.
Matlala is survived by his wife Mapule and their two children.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com, as well as a member of Transnational Boxing Ratings Board, Yahoo Boxing Ratings Panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox
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