Jacob Matlala, the shortest professional boxer in the world, who became widely, and affectionately, known simply as “Baby Jake”, was born in Soweto in 1962.He spent most of his life in the suburb of Meadowlands, where his boxing aspirations began.Baby Jake’s father was a recreational boxer and it is said that the young Jacob began training as a 10-year-old, eventually ending up at the Dube Boxing Club.
The club’s trainer Theo Mthembu quickly became a pivotal part of Baby Jake’s career. Under Mthembu’s guidance, his first professional fight was in February 1980 in Port Elizabeth, where he defeated Fraser Plaatjies. He would lose his next two fights after his debut.
Jacob Matlala, the shortest professional boxer in the world, who became widely, and affectionately, known simply as “Baby Jake”, was born in Soweto in 1962.
Despite the naysayers and the world of boxing itself trying to dissuade him, Baby Jake stuck to his goal to become a professional boxer. Standing at just 147cm high, he was the shortest boxer in the world. Eventually, as his career flourished, he also became the shortest world champion. The common thread that would follow Baby Jake’s career is that everyone he fought, though in his weight class of flyweight, was much taller than him.
In 2002, Baby Jake fought his last fight. In the ring at Carnival City, East of Johannesburg, he defeated Columbian boxer Juan Herrera 1:43 into the seventh of 12 rounds. In the stands watching the fight and rooting for Baby Jake was the late Nelson Mandela, and Hollywood actor Will Smith.
Baby Jake went out in blazing glory: A feat not many boxing legends are able to achieve. Baby Jake defeated Herrera, a man 10 years his junior, and he won that year’s World Boxing Union light flyweight title. He presented this title to Mandela who was also a boxer in his youth.
The fight at The Big Top Arena was his 68th in a career that yielded 53 wins and two draws. Through the span of his career Baby Jake held four world titles and two South African ones.
Life After Boxing
When he finally hung up his boxing gloves, Baby Jake said he had done so because he felt he had run out of small people to fight. His life after boxing was filled with business moves, which weren’t always successful, and ambassadorships. On the business side, there were franchise restaurants and grooming products named after him or featuring his image. He was an ambassador of the Gauteng province’s Aids awareness and prevention campaign and a spokesperson in the province’s campaign against illegal dumping. He put his commerce degree, which he achieved through the University of South Africa to work.
After retiring from boxing, Baby Jake played an active role in boxing development. He trained players at Dube Boxing Club, and was constantly and vociferously critical of the youngsters’ lack of discipline in their training. In an interview he was quoted as saying, “Now they get to the gym at 5.45am, and are not ready to start training at 6am as they haven't warmed up yet.”
Baby Jake died on December 7 2013. He succumbed to pneumonia. He is survived by his wife, Mapule and two sons, Tshepo and Masego. But commemorations of Baby Jake’s death were overshadowed by the death of Nelson Mandela two days earlier: The public couldn’t help but draw parallels between the two heartbreaking events. The two men had been enamoured with each other in life.