Before there was “Baby Jake” Matlala there was Jake Tuli. Tuli never became a world champion, but he came from the era of eight weight divisions with as many world champions, whereas Matlala became a star at a time when there were several world champions in 17 weight divisions.
Although they had their careers during vastly different times, they had more in common than just their first names.
Both scored some massive upsets.
Tuli was the reigning South African champion at both flyweight and bantamweight before he was sent to the UK in 1952 by a local benefactor to join the stable of manager, Jim Wicks, who also handled heavyweight contender, Henry Cooper. Once there, he challenged Terry Gardner, the reigning British Empire (Commonwealth) flyweight champion, who was looking for an easy title defense. It was Tuli’s moment to shine and he battered Gardner to a 12th round stoppage to become the new champion.
In the absence of the alphabet titles of today, the Empire title was a big deal and it immediately made Tuli a contender for the world title. Despite going on a 13 fight undefeated streak over the next year, fighting mostly in the UK, Japanese world champion, Yoshio Shirai, avoided the South African like the plague, even refusing an offer where Tuli would have forfeited his entire purse to the champion. If Tuli had the option of simply targeting the champion of another sanctioning body, then he probably would have won a world title in today’s world.
Tuli suffered his first defeat at bantamweight to future world champion, Robert Cohen, when he was outpointed in a great fight in 1953. He returned to the flyweight division but was stopped by Filipino contender, Leo Espinosa, which marked his gradual slide from the international scene.
Fast forward a couple of decades and Baby Jake Matlala was not favored to dethrone Scotsman, Pat Clinton, in Glasgow in 1993 when he challenged him for the WBO world flyweight title, having already lost to Dave McCauley for the IBF version. He tore up the script and battered Clinton to an eighth-round defeat to capture his first world title. He would eventually move down to junior flyweight, a division that did not exist in Tuli’s time and besides winning more world titles, scored an even bigger upset, stopping Hall-of-Famer, Michael Carbajal, in nine rounds.
Both also had extensive campaigns in the UK.
Matlala fought there seven times, only losing to McCauley, whereas Tuli stepped into a UK ring no less than 25 times, sometimes even fighting twice a month!
Who would have won had they met each other in their flyweight primes?
Matlala, the world’s shortest boxer in his time, never fought above flyweight and was most comfortable as a junior flyweight. Tuli, who also fought as a bantamweight, would no doubt have had the physical advantages. But then again, so did all Baby Jake’s opponents.
Matching fighters from different eras remain speculative at best but it sure would have been worth watching!
Source: The Fighters – Chris Greyvenstein