Remembering the little big man Baby Jake Matlala
By Michael J Jones
On Saturday December 7th boxing lost another of its heroes in former two-weight world champion “Baby Jake” Matlala. The former outstanding light-flyweight and flyweight ruler died following complications related to pneumonia. He was just 51-years-old and had been battling illness for some time.
In a 68-bout career spanning some 22 years, South Africa’s Matlala, real name Jacob, proved himself one of the best of a talent-laden era. Listed as anything from 4’9” to 4’10½”, the diminutive pressure fighter used his stature to his advantage and gave nobody an easy night’s work even at the end of his career nearing 40-years-old; ancient for a lower-weight fighter.
Jacob Matlala was born on January 8th 1962 in Soweto. He took to boxing at an early age and turned professional at just 18. His first contest was a points win against fellow South African Fraser Plaatjies on February 2nd 1980.
Matched against other tough SA flyweight prospects from the start, Matlala suffered several defeats in his early years but kept improving and learning his craft. Three years into his career, Matlala would show some potential by dispatching unbeaten Mueleli Luzipho in eleven rounds to lift the SA light-flyweight title though would lose to the same man twice in subsequent rematches.
After a brace of losses to talented countryman Vuyani Nene (four in total) and another to Jaji Sibeli, Matlala put together an eight-fight winning streak to turn his career around. After reclaiming the SA title and stopping Zolile Mbityi in six, the improving contender would receive his first world title shot far away from home.
A few years before we had Arturo Gatti, Irishman Dave “Boy” McAuley thrilled us with some brutal performances in world flyweight title bouts. The unknown Matlala would face the hard-as-nails IBF champion in Belfast. Although just 17-2-2, McAuley was more experienced at top level than the 43-fight veteran Matlala and it showed in the fight as the far-shorter “Baby Jake” was stopped in ten rounds.
Note: McAuley would surprisingly lose his title in his next fight and never fight again.
The beaten world title challenger came back with three decent wins and just two years later would get another chance at a world title when facing Scotland’s Pat Clinton at Glasgow. Clinton was a good boxer and 20-1 but Matlala set a frenetic pace and by the eighth round the defending champion could take no more. Matlala was champion for the first time at 31-years-old.
After three title defences, including a resounding stoppage of Francis Ampofo at York Hall, the champion would lose his title to power-punching Mexican Alberto Jimenez. Finding the raw strength of Jimenez too much, Matlala was halted in the eighth.
Just nine months after the disappointment of losing his belt, Jacob was matched in another world title fight, this time against Scotland’s WBO light-flyweight champion Paul Weir.
The world title match was scheduled for Glasgow and Weir insisted he had the beating of Matlala beforehand. The contest unfolded with Weir trying to box and move and the SA challenger stalking and trying to cut off the ring.
As Matlala bulled in, his head connected with Weir’s where the Scottish favourite sustained a nasty cut eye. The fight was halted in the fifth and went to the cards. A knock-down for the tiny puncher proved decisive as the judges scored unanimously 38-37 to new champion Matlala.
Six months later the two men would face each other again in Liverpool and this time there would be no controversy as Matlala ground down the tough Scot in ten thrilling rounds. The little South African would defend the WBO crown just once more when edging plucky Mickey Cantwell on a split decision in London. Just five months later the champion would face the toughest test of his career at the Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas.
July 1997, Las Vegas, underdog “Baby Jake” Matlala is pitched against American superstar Michael Carbajal for the IBA light-fly championship. Most are thinking the 45-3 Carbajal is a certainty to knock Matlala out. Younger, taller and with a big edge in power, many expect a dominant performance from “Manitas De Piedra”.
There would be a dominant performance but not from Carbajal…
Setting his usual unbelievable pace, Matlala burrowed in close to unload his solid and numerous short, stinging punches. Carbajal tried to jab, tried to smother and counter, but simply couldn’t keep the little guy off him. By the middle rounds, Carbajal was tiring fast and taking punch after punch flush. When cuts to both eyes ended the contest at 1:24, there was no protest from the beaten man. The South African’s head may have gone in (with some seven inches in height between the pair) but the American star was well beaten.
In four career defeats this was the only inside schedule one suffered by Carbajal. His other three losses all came by close decision (two against great rival Humberto Gonzalez).
Following the best win of his career and now 35-years-young, the colourful Matlala only fought four times in the next few years. Twenty years after his pro debut and now 38, the aging former champion would find both Masibulele “Hawk” Makepula and Peter Culshaw too young and speedy in respective title fights for the WBO and WBU belts respectfully.
With his career winding down, Jake would win the WBU light-flyweight title over limited Todd Makelim before returning to Britain for the last time to engage in a rematch with Mickey Cantwell in London. This time the SA fighter was all business as he ruthlessly dismantled Cantwell in just five rounds in a vintage performance.
With retirement in his sights, Matlala would defend his WBU belt one last time against respectable Columbian Juan Herrera in his farewell contest in 2002. The bout at Carnival City, Brakpen in Gauteng, would be witnessed by Nelson Mandela, who was a big fan of “Baby Jake” and went out of his way to be present at the occasion. Matlala was very honoured to be fighting in front of the former SA President and duly thrashed Herrera in seven. It would be the first time the Columbian had been beaten inside the distance in eight years as Matlala turned back the clock one last time.
Matlala would then proudly present his championship belt to Mandela after the contest. It is hard to believe both would pass away just days from each other eleven years later.
Jacob Matlala, the shortest world champion of all time, finished his career at 53-13-2 (26) as a two-weight world champion who fought the best of his era and ducked nobody.
Unusually for a lower weight fighter he seemed to get better with age and was clearly in his prime at an age most would be happily retired. Fighting him was like trying to jog surrounded by a swarm of bees; he never gave you any time or space to set up attack. He wasn’t a devastating puncher but stopped many durable fighters who simply couldn’t handle the pressure he could dish out for twelve solid rounds.
Rest in peace “Baby Jake” Matlala 1962-2013
Baby Jake destroys Carbajal-