Alexa

'Baby Jake' Matlala appears at event in his honor

'Baby Jake' Matlala appears at event in his honor

South Africans call him the little man with the big heart. At 1.47 meters (4-foot-10) he was _ and still is _ the shortest ever boxing world champion.
Jacob "Baby Jake" Matlala's disregard for his own size, ferocious punching speed, four world titles _ and ever-present smile _ made him one of South Africa's most successful fighters and one of its best-loved sportsmen.
The smile was back on Thursday when the retired former world champion appeared at a boxing tournament held in his honor.
He arrived at the "Night of the Little Big Men" at Emperors Palace on a throne carried by bearers, for once towering above everyone. He flashed the beaming grin, waved to his fans and walked confidently to his ringside seat.
The appearance will have eased the fears of many worried supporters, which include South Africa President Jacob Zuma.
Barely three months ago Baby Jake, a former flyweight and light flyweight world champ of the minor WBO, WBU and IBA organizations, was admitted to an intensive care unit for the third time in quick succession with complications related to pneumonia.
The 48-year-old ex-fighter's serious health problems inspired an outpouring of support from South Africans, including President Zuma, who said Matlala's "warm personality and humility" had "endeared him to the nation."
The country rallied, and so did Matlala. At Emperors Palace, Matlala appeared fully recovered. But as serious as his illness was, there were more problems.
Thursday's tournament was organized by Matlala's former promoter, Rodney Berman, who said the little man's medical bills left him "financially stretched."
So South Africa's sporting community united to raise $70,000 to help out.
The country's sports minister, Olympic committee president, and former national football team captain Lucas Radebe were all part of the sellout audience.
The singers and entertainers performed for free and the IBO, the sanctioning boxing body, even agreed to cut its fee.
The response meant Matlala, who was originally not expected to attend, promised to be there "come hell or high water."
He made good on his promise and watched as highly rated South African heavyweight Flo Simba kept his unbeaten record with a fifth round TKO of Zimbabwe's Sting Gondorenda.
And following the main event, where challenger Gideon Buthelezi won a split decision over Hekkie Budler to win the IBO junior flyweight title _ the weight at which Matlala won three of his four world titles _ he hopped into the ring to pose for photos with both fighters and present the belt.
"Thank you everyone for supporting Baby Jake and Baby Jake's family," Matlala said simply. "Thank you big time."
Matlala retired at the age of 40 in 2002 with a seventh-round stoppage of Juan Herrera to retain his WBU junior flyweight title. He ended with a 53-12-2 record after a 22-year pro career in which he won the WBO flyweight, WBO junior flyweight, IBA light flyweight and WBU junior flyweight world titles.


Updated : 2021-03-08 11:36 GMT+08:00