Jonah Lomu was not often the undercard attraction at a premier sports event.

However 15 years ago in London he was delighted to occupy that status when his hero Muhammad Ali was the headline guest at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards.

When Lomu heard about the guest list he bought some boxing gloves, T-shirts and other Ali memorabilia. Since he was a youngster The Greatest had been his sporting hero for his skill and his beliefs.

He had watched replays of all his fights and loved the way Ali used a range of tactics in his clashes with Smokin' Joe Frazier and the Rope a Dope special with George Foreman in Zaire. He could dance and sway, offer flashy glove speed or take some punishment to get the job done.

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"He was classy, cool, had great charisma and was black, so all those things were like a magnet to me," Lomu told me.

That was seven years ago when I compiled My Sports Hero, in which famous New Zealanders revealed the sportspeople who inspired them in their younger years and set a path for their values.

Lomu was in awe of Ali, the three-time heavyweight champion.

"He said what he thought. He did not care what others thought - he stuck by his beliefs and he backed them up," Lomu added.

The aura in the banquet room room in London altered when Ali arrived. The hubbub of conversation lowered a touch as though the Louisville Lip's cloak of greatness touched everyone like the power of the All Black legend.

Lomu met Ali several times but that first meeting was the best and it "buzzed" him out a bit to be in such august company. Ali was tall but a little frail and in the grip of his Parkinson's disease which slurred his conversation.

Five years earlier Lomu had won the BBC overseas personality award for his heroics at the 1995 World Cup. He was on the top rung in a room of stellar sporting company but was awed by Ali's presence.

"It was a huge thrill to meet him though and something that will last through my lifetime," Lomu wrote. "From my young days Ali was always someone I wanted to meet and to actually have the chance to shake his hand was something else, something you would never have thought would happen.

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"I asked him for his autograph, I got it on a boxing glove.

Muhammad Ali's dizzying combination of skill and belief is the same recipe that defined Jonah's greatness. Photo / AP
Muhammad Ali's dizzying combination of skill and belief is the same recipe that defined Jonah's greatness. Photo / AP

"I carried the boxing glove into dinner because I knew Ali was on the guest list so I wasn't going to miss what I thought might be my one and only chance to meet him and get his signature.

"He was the one guy I wanted to ask for a signature. It was a thrill, a high that I rode for some days and an experience I will never forget.

"Ali had that aura, that wow factor. His deeds always matched or surpassed his words," Lomu told me.

Similar tributes should be said about the 40 year old who succumbed this week after a lengthy fight with kidney disease. His gentle compassion touched many around the globe and in NZ where he helped a number of charities and visited children in hospital.

That evening in London confirmed to Lomu how much goodwill sportspeople generate through their deeds on the park and away from the spotlight and he delivered on those principles.

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His sporting gifts were obvious while much of his charitable work was done under the radar, without any fuss or attention. That's how Jonah wanted it.