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 1.47m, 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.
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.
"He took education very seriously and encouraged fellow boxers to upgrade their qualifications, and led by example as he himself was a B. Comm graduate."
There was a sombre mood and gospel music playing softly in the background as government officials, former boxers, family and friends gathered, waiting for the formalities to get underway.
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.
Matlala is survived by his wife, who was his childhood sweetheart, and two sons.
Family, friends and fans of Jacob “Baby Jake” Matlala are invited to share their memories and tributes, and to light a candle for him, on his profile at Remembered.co.za.