Morné du Plessis, Chairman of Laureus South Africa, called him a ‘brave lion-hearted man who was one of the nation’s favourite sporting sons’.
At just 4ft 10ins (1.47 metres) he was the shortest ever world champion, but he had a big, big heart and was a powerful symbol of reconciliation in South Africa.
His career was followed with great interest by President Mandela, who attended his final world title fight. Baby Jake was so overwhelmed that he presented his World Boxing Union belt to Nelson Mandela at the end of the fight.
Morné du Plessis said: “It is with great sadness that we received the news of the passing of Baby Jake Matlala. This brave, lion hearted man was one of South Africa’s favourite sporting sons. We will miss his smiling face, his great enthusiasm, friendly disposition and his willingness to share his time with everybody he came into contact with.
“Baby Jake served with passion and dedication as an Ambassador for the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation in South Africa. He believed whole-heartedly in the mantra of President Mandela that ‘sport has the power to change the world’, and did much to change the lives of countless young people through his coaching, mentoring and inspiration. Our thoughts and condolences go out to his wife Mapule, his sons Lesego and Tshepo, and all his family and friends.”
Jacob Matlala, known universally as Baby Jake, started going to the gym with his father when he was ten and was so passionate about the sport that he decided to turn professional in 1979. He started boxing in1980 and it only took him four contests to become South African Junior Flyweight champion.
‘Baby Jake’ won the World Boxing Organisation (WBO) Flyweight title when he beat Pat Clinton in his hometown Glasgow and then defeated Michael Carbajal in Las Vegas, USA, to win the International Boxing Association (IBA) Flyweight title. He later claimed the vacant WBU Flyweight title as well.
Matlala ended his 30-year boxing career at Carnival City, Brakpan, by stopping Colombian Juan Herrera for the WBU Junior Flyweight title in the seventh round and he remains the only South African boxer to have won four world titles.
Baby Jake suffered from poor health in the last few years, eventually dying of complications following pneumonia, but throughout he supported the work of Laureus wherever he could.