CAPE TOWN — Standing just 1,48 metres tall and with especially short arms, a big problem for a boxer, Jacob Matlala rose from early hardship in Soweto to be a four-time world champion and one of South Africa’s most popular sportsmen.
No wonder he was also one of Nelson Mandela’s favourites.
Matlala died last Saturday aged 51 after a struggle with lung problems, dying two days after Mandela. He was buried yesterday in Johannesburg.
Yet even in the midst of its deep mourning for Madiba, South Africa made sure to also remember “Baby Jake”.
President Jacob Zuma, the ANC and even Mandela’s family shared words of tribute for a boxer referred to by fans as “the little man with the big heart”.
“With his tiny frame and lethal blows that achieved him iconic status among South Africans, Matlala demonstrated the greatest that a combination of a good head and a good heart could achieve,” the ANC said, playing on a famous Mandela quote that “a good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination”.
In perhaps its greatest praise, the ANC said Matlala showed the same good characteristics “that Madiba embodied”.
Matlala was so popular with Mandela that the former president attended his final fight in 2002, when Matlala successfully defended his WBU junior flyweight title and made his way into the crowd afterward to present the belt to Mandela, who was watching with Hollywood actor Will Smith.
With his ability to triumph over adversity, Matlala was an especially popular champion for many South Africans.
“Even with the disadvantages he had of being 4 foot 10 with short arms, he was a brilliant fighter,” said Brian Mitchell, South Africa’s former WBA and IBF super featherweight champion and a contender alongside Matlala for the title of South Africa’s greatest ever fighter.
Matlala had a 53-13-2 record in a 22-year professional career.
“He was a small giant … whose impact far outweighed its size,” the ANC said.