The recent passing of South African icon Nelson Mandela has deeply saddened all of us here at PeacePlayers – South Africa. After all, PPI-SA works every day in the shadow of Mandela and his legacy, striving to help build the South Africa of Mandela’s dreams: A country free from prejudice and racial barriers, where every man, woman, and child has their rights protected and an opportunity to succeed. Being based at PeacePlayers’ South African office, it’s nearly impossible to pass up writing a blog about Mandela’s life, achievements, legacy, and impact on the sport-for-development mission. However, given the extensive coverage of those things in local and international news this week, I would like to take this opportunity to share another, closely-related story which deserves recognition in a week where space in the newspaper is nearly impossible to come by.
On March 2nd, 2002, Nelson Mandela entered a sold out arena in Gauteng Province, South Africa to thunderous applause. He had a ringside seat to the WBU junior flyweight title. Mandela, once a boxer himself, had come to pay tribute to 40-year old South African boxing legend Jacob “Baby Jake” Matlala, who, on that night, would be fighting his last fight.
Mandela was one of Baby Jake’s many fans, and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to watch him go for his 4th world title, which would be more than any other South African boxer in history. The matchup wouldn’t be easy given that Baby Jake’s opponent, Colombian Juan Herrera, was 11 years younger. But Baby Jake was no stranger to disadvantages; the three-time world champ stood just 4-foot-10 (1.47m), and was the shortest boxing world champion to ever live.
Despite facing height and reach disadvantages fight after fight, his heart and determination eventually overpowered his opponents. Early in his career, the sport had given him every reason to hang up his gloves. He lost 7 of his first 30 professional fights, including 4 in a row over a span of two years to then-South African champion Vuyani Nene. The following year he again challenged for a South African title, this time as a flyweight. Again, he came up short. Determined to be a champion, Baby Jake continued to hone his skills. By 1991 he was challenging for his first world title, but got knocked out in the 10th round of the title bout by Irishman Dave McCauley. Once again, Baby Jake got up and went back to work.
In 1993, that hard work finally paid off as he won his first world title, stunning the crowd in Glasgow, Scotland by recording an 8th round TKO over home-town favourite, Pat Clinton. His 2nd world title was even more impressive, when he defeated legendary American boxer Michael Carbajal in Las Vegas in 1997 for the junior flyweight title. At the time, Carbajal was considered by many to be the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Baby Jake added a 3rd world title in 2001 after whipping Australian Todd Makelin in four rounds.
The next year, on that memorable day in March 2002, with Mandela sitting ringside and Baby Jake’s aging, 4-foot-10 frame just a few rounds away from retirement, he wore out the 29-year old Herrera, dominating him for seven rounds before the fight was stopped. Baby Jake was awarded his record 4th world title, but that WBU junior flyweight title belt didn’t make it home with him. He climbed out of the ring and gave the belt to his hero, Nelson Mandela.
Baby Jake spent his retirement tirelessly working to fulfill Mandela’s South African dream. He took part in numerous charity events for the needy and those living with HIV/AIDS. He inspired people as a motivational speaker, and coached and mentored youth in a quest to help them overcome difficult backgrounds and reach their dreams. He was a strong believer in Mandela’s mantra that “sport has the power to change the world,” and he served as an Ambassador and passionate supporter of the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation in South Africa.
It was through PPI-SA’s partnership with Laureus that we were able to meet Baby Jake and see first-hand the positive impact he had on others when he came to our 16th City-Wide Tournament in June 2010. He spoke to over 1,200 of our players, coaches, and volunteers about believing in yourself, overcoming obstacles, and never giving up.
Baby Jake Matlala died on Saturday, December 7th in a Johannesburg hospital, just two days after the passing of Nelson Mandela. He was 51 years old. Had news of his death come at any other time, it would have captured headlines and spawned numerous features, reflections, and tributes. Unfortunately, and understandably, the sad news of his passing lies hidden beneath a mountain of Mandela coverage. In a week where the country and world focuses on the great loss of Nelson Mandela, we ask you to take a moment to also honor the life and achievements of Baby Jake Matlala, South Africa’s other fallen legend.
Editor’s Note: Yes, that is American actor Will Smith in the photo with Baby Jake and Mandela. Smith had recently starred as Muhammad Ali in the 2001 film “Ali” and attended Baby Jake’s final fight with Mandela.