Boxing Snippets

Baby Jake Matlala TKO 9 Michael Carbajal – 18 July 1997

If dictionaries had pictures and you looked up “determination” there would be a photo of the diminutive Jacob ‘Baby Jake” Matlala next to the word. Matlala, the world’s shortest boxer at the time, stood a mere 1,48m in his boots but he was a gritty, volume punching pressure fighter who just kept coming forward.

He won the South African light flyweight title in 1983 when he stopped Mveleli Luzipho in 11 rounds but lost it back to him later in the year by unanimous decision. He tried four more times to regain the title but lost to Luzipho once again and another three times to the talented Vuyani Nene (he lost a total of four fights to Nene). He then tried his luck at flyweight but dropped a close decision to Jaji Sibali for the national title.

He dropped back to light flyweight and finally won back his old title when he outpointed Wele Maqolo in 1990, seven years after his first reign as South African champion. He made two successful defenses against Ndoda Mayende and Zolile Mbityi before he received a world title shot at flyweight against the IBF champion, Dave McAuley, in Belfast.

Matlala fought valiantly and won the respect of the fans but it was not enough as McAuley finally found the shot to knock him out in the tenth round. That should have been that but Matlala soldiered on and recorded two more wins, one of them over Mzukisi Skali, before receiving another world title opportunity against Pat Clinton in Glasgow for the WBO flyweight title in 1993. This time Matlala would not be denied and simply overwhelmed the Scot with endless combinations to the head and body until he finally succumbed in the eighth round. That was the feel-good story of the year but there was more to come. Much more.

Matlala racked up three successful defenses before losing his title by eighth round stoppage to the teak tough Mexican, Aberto Jiminez in 1995. Still, he wasn’t going anywhere and by the end of the year he had dropped back down to light flyweight and beat another Scot in Glasgow, this time Paul Weir for the WBO light flyweight title, winning by technical decision in five rounds. He stopped Weir in ten rounds in a rematch for his first title defense but then ran into difficulty outside the ring.

Promoter Rodney Berman tells the tale of how South Africa’s little big man eventually crossed paths with Golden Gloves: “His trainer, Theo Mthembu, came to see me at my house. His promoter at the time couldn’t get him fights and he was in danger of getting stripped of his WBO light flyweight title. Mthembu asked me if I could assist them in getting a fight. I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do with him but eventually we got him a fight in England (a title defense against Mickey Cantwell). Then we got him a fight against Michael Carbajal. We got absolutely slated for that. People were saying that we were throwing him to the wolves, that Carbajal would kill him.”

In a sense, one could understand why people would think that. Carbajal was a big American star, who along with Humberto “Chiquita” Gonzalez, brought much needed glamour and dollars to one of boxing’s smallest weight divisions. He was an Olympic silver medalist and a former WBC, WBO and two-time IBF light flyweight world champion. Carbajal was a crippling puncher and known for an epic war in his first fight against Gonzalez where he got off the canvass twice to knock out the Mexican. In his last fight before facing Matlala, he knocked out the well-regarded Scotty Olson to win the IBA light flyweight title. The IBA was not regarded as one of the major world bodies but the fact that the belt was around the waist of Carbajal gave it stature.

The two met at the Thomas & Mack Centre in Las Vegas, the main supporting bout to the Johnny Tapia-Danny Romero super fight but the big stage had no adverse effect on the South African.  Matlala beat Carbajal from pillar to post, averaging over a 100 punches per round. With Carbajal bleeding badly from cuts and on a beating to nowhere the fight was stopped in the ninth round, giving Baby Jake the TKO win and the biggest victory of his career. It would also be only time that Carbajal would fail to hear the final bell in a long career.

Carbajal took a year off and came back in 1999. He had four fights in that year, culminating in a come from behind eleventh round knockout victory over future Mexican star, Jorge Arce, to once again become the WBO light flyweight champion. It was the perfect moment and Carbajal wisely retired as world champion.

Michael Carbajal was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2006 and remains a popular and respected figure in his native Phoenix, Arizona.

The affable Matlala with his all action style became a cult hero in South Africa. He made three defenses of his IBA belt before losing a close decision the Hawk Makepula for the vacant WBO world light flyweight championship. He won another title, this time the WBU belt and retired in 2002 at the age of 40 after stopping Juan Herrera in seven rounds.

Along with Manny Pacquiao, he also became the late president, Nelson Mandela’s favorite fighter, President Mandela attending one of his fights in person where Baby Jake gifted him his WBU belt.

Ironically, he died on 7 December 2013 after a long sickbed at the age of 51, the same day as President Mandela, two South African icons crossing the rainbow bridge together.



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