Remembering Baby Jake

2017-12-07 10:30
PHOTO: Gallo images/ Getty images

Just two days after Nelson Mandela’s death in 2013, 51-year-old renowned boxer Baby Jake Matlala died after a long battle with a recurring lung condition. His was a sudden death that shook the nation.

Jacob “Baby Jake” Matlala is undoubtedly one of the most famous boxers SA has ever had.

From his small stature to his effortless boxing style, his rise to fame was one no one saw coming.

Born in 1962 in Meadowlands, Johannesburg, Baby Jake started going to the gym at 10 years old with his father, who was an aspiring boxer himself.

Baby Jake was so passionate about boxing he decided to turn pro in 1979.

The flyweight champion began his boxing career in 1980 in a fourth-round victory over Fraser Plaatjie in Port Elizabeth under the guidance of former fighter Theo Mthembu.

It only took Baby Jake four contests to become South African junior flyweight champion. Vuyani Nene later dethroned the pint-sized star.

In July 1997, in an unlikely bout, Baby Jake defeated Michael Carbajal in Las Vegas for the International Boxing Association flyweight title.

He later gave it up to challenge Hawk Makepula for the vacant World Boxing Organization (WBO) junior flyweight title.

Matlala ended his once-illustrious career at Carnival City in 2002 by stopping Colombian Juan Herrera from getting the World Boxing Union (WBU) junior flyweight title in the seventh round. Matlala became the only South African boxer to have won four world titles in a career of 27 stoppages, 54 wins, 12 losses and two draws after his final bout.

He became a world champ after he defeated Pat Clinton for the WBO flyweight title in May 1995 in front of Pat’s hometown supporters in Glasgow, Scotland. He then became a world champion for the second time in November 1995, defeating Paul Weir on a technical decision in five rounds to secure the World Boxing Association flyweight title.

On 18 July 1997 the four-time flyweight champion delivered the best performance of his career beating Carbajal for nine rounds before the referee stopped the fight. It was assumed that this would be Baby Jake’s toughest fight as Carbajal was regarded as the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world, but the victory earned Matlala respect, raised his profile and made him a world champ again.

In February 2001 Baby Jake was again a world champion after defeating Todd Makelim in four rounds to claim the vacant WBU junior flyweight crown. He finished up with 52 victories, two draws and 12 defeats.

One of Matlala’s best moments was when Madiba and Will Smith arrived during his farewell fight against Juan Herrera on 3 March and he decided to present his WBU belt to Madiba, according to

Four years later Baby Jake is still remembered for putting SA boxing on the map and packing a mean punch – just goes to show, dynamite comes in small packages.