JOHANNESBURG - Jacob "Baby Jake" Matlala represented the best there was in boxing, Gauteng sport MEC Lebogang Maile said at his memorial service in Nasrec, Johannesburg, on Wednesday.
"We are gathered to celebrate the life of a giant," Maile said of the diminutive Matlala who, at 147cm, was the shortest man to have been a world champion.
"He was one of the best from his generation. He was a very decent human being who lived a clean life personified by victories and defeats, and he was the epitome of a true champion."
The boxing fraternity flocked to pay tribute to the four-time world flyweight champion who died in Johannesburg on Saturday, aged 51.
Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula said that Matlala’s death signals the end of a golden era in boxing.
"Boxing will never be the same again. Just like his idol and hero Nelson Mandela, such people come once in a lifetime," Mbalula said.
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.
A giant in boxing
Former world welterweight champion Jan Bergman reminded the gathering that the memorial service was about the demise of a great boxer, and delivered his eulogy with tears in his eyes and an unsteady voice.
"News of his death has left me numb. He contributed towards the building of this Jan Bergman standing here today, and he was godfather to my son," Bergman said.
"He taught us never to give up. Baby Jake was defeated several times and still he went on until he became a champion four times. He was super-fit and a very resilient man."
Boxing SA acting CEO Loyiso Mtya described Matlala as a giant in boxing, despite his size.
"He was small in stature, but a giant among heavyweights. He put meaning into that old adage that says 'it is not the size of the dog that matters in a fight, but rather it is the size of the fight in the dog'," Mtya said.
Peter Ngatane, president of the Commonwealth Boxing Council and former chairman of BSA, said Matlala would always be remembered for his humility.
"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," Ngatane said.
One of South Africa’s best
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.
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.