CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — Standing just 4-foot-10 and with especially short arms — a big problem for a boxer — Jacob Matlala rose from hardship in Soweto to become a four-time world champion and one of South Africa's most popular sportsmen.
No wonder he was a favorite of former President Nelson Mandela, who boxed in his youth before becoming the leader of the anti-apartheid movement.
Matlala died last Saturday at 51 after a struggle with lung problems, two days after Mandela's death. He was buried on Friday in Johannesburg, two days before Mandela's state funeral.
Even in the midst of its deep mourning for the beloved statesman Mandela, also known by his clan name Madiba, South Africa made sure to remember "Baby Jake."
South African President Jacob Zuma, the ruling African National Congress party and Mandela's family shared words of tribute for a boxer referred to by fans as "the little man with the big heart."
"With his tiny frame and lethal blows that achieved him iconic status among South Africans, Matlala demonstrated the greatest that a combination of a good head and a good heart could achieve," the ANC said, playing on a famous Mandela quote that "a good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination."
In perhaps its greatest praise, the ANC said Matlala showed the same good characteristics "that Madiba embodied."
Mandela attended Matala's final fight in 2002, when he successfully defended his WBU junior flyweight title. He made his way into the crowd afterward to present the belt to Mandela, who was watching with Hollywood actor Will Smith.1
In a country where heroes are often made to battle their way to the top through serious challenges, Matlala was an especially popular champion for many South Africans.
"Even with the disadvantages he had of being 4-foot-10 with short arms, he was a brilliant fighter," said Brian Mitchell, South Africa's former WBA and IBF super featherweight champion and a contender alongside Matlala for the title of South Africa's greatest fighter.
Mitchell said Matlala was one of Mandela's favorite boxers for his humility and generosity outside the ring as much as his determination and courage in it.
"He would sign autographs for children for hours and they would stand in queues. It was never too much trouble for him," Mitchell told The Associated Press. "His kindness was like the great Madiba."
Matlala won the WBO flyweight and junior flyweight titles as well as the IBA light flyweight and WBU junior flyweight crowns. Although he never won one of the big belts, his "defining moment," Mitchell said, came in 1997 when he beat American Michael "Little Hands of Stone" Carbajal in a major upset in Las Vegas.
Matlala had a 53-13-2 record in a 22-year professional career, which was appreciated by one of history's colossal figures.
"He was a small giant ... whose impact far outweighed its size," the ANC said.