Jacob “Baby Jake” Matlala will always be remembered for his humility, Peter Ngatane said at the boxing legend’s memorial service in Nasrec, Johannesburg, on Wednesday.
Ngatane is president of the Commonwealth Boxing Council and former chairperson of Boxing SA (BSA).
“He was very spiritual and always insisted that after every training session at the Dube Boxing Club (in Soweto) that we must pray, as he felt the world was not always a safe place,” he said, according to Sapa.
“He took education very seriously and encouraged fellow boxers to upgrade their qualifications, and led by example as he himself was a B. Comm graduate.”
There was a sombre mood and gospel music playing softly in the background as former boxers, family and friends gathered, waiting for the formalities to get underway.
Dingaan Thobela, known as “The Rose of Soweto” and Masibulele “The Hawk” Makepula were at the service at the Nasrec Expo Centre, formerly the home of Gauteng Boxing and BSA. The hall was set up as a mock boxing ring and was where pre-fight weigh-ins took place in the 1990s.
Makepula, now a pastor, conducted the opening prayer. He fought and beat Matlala in February 1990.
Arguably the most successful boxer produced by South Africa, Matlala, the four-time world flyweight (50kg) champion, was born in Meadowlands, Soweto on August 1, 1962.
Matlala’s professional career began in Port Elizabeth, in the Eastern Cape, in February 1980, and, by the time he retired in March 2002, his record stood at more than 50 victories.
His titles included World Boxing Organisation flyweight champion in 1993, the light flyweight title in 1995, the International Boxing Association junior flyweight title in 1997 and the World Boxing Union (WBU) flyweight title in 2001.
He was the only South African boxer to have won four world titles and, at 1.47-metres, he was the shortest man to have been a world champion. His death came just days after that of former president Nelson Mandela, who was a boxer in his younger days.
Mandela and US actor Will Smith attended Matlala’s farewell fight. Afterwards, Matlala presented his WBU belt to Mandela.
When he retired, Matlala remained actively involved in the community, helped to raise funds for HIV/Aids programmes and supported the SA Police Service in its campaign to get members fit.
In 2010, Golden Gloves boxing promoter Rodney Berman arranged a black-tie charity fight called The Night of the Little Big Man to raise funds for Matlala to cover his medical costs after he was hospitalised for weeks, reportedly with double pneumonia.
The Rhema Church, of which Matlala was a member, also called on the public to help raise funds for him, and SuperSport agreed to sponsor the broadcast of the charity event.
At the time, Berman’s publicist, Terry Pettifer, who has himself since died, told The Times newspaper that Matlala had “lost everything and needs all the help he can get”.
Matlala is survived by his wife, who was his childhood sweetheart, and two sons.
Picture: Tertius Pickard/Gallo Images