Baby Jake Matlala. Picture: VELI NHLAPO
Baby Jake Matlala. Picture: VELI NHLAPO

BOXER Jacob "Baby Jake" Matlala, the shortest world champion whose fortunes were closely followed by Nelson Mandela, died on Saturday at the age of 51, local media reported.

The 147cm tall light-flyweight champion was a potent symbol of reconciliation in South Africa, where his fortunes were keenly followed.

Matlala held four titles and was the first South African to win belts in different weight divisions.

A keen boxing fan, Mandela died on Thursday aged 95.

Such was the iconic status of Matlala in South African sporting circles that when he fought his last fight to retain the fourth of the world titles he won in a topsey-turvey career that former president Nelson Mandela and Hollywood actor Will Smith were at the ringside among those who came to pay tribute.

Matlala, who retired because he said he had "run out of small people to fight", had suffered from poor health and money problems in recent years. Benefactors raised funds to pay his medical bills and other debts.

In 2010, he was sick and was reported to be bankrupt.

Matlala seemed to improve the longer his varied career continued — and many reckoned that at 42 years he was a more accomplished fighter than ever before.

Reuters with Sapa