When ailing boxing great Muhammad Ali made a flying visit to New Zealand, predictably he caused a sensation.

Ali was 37 and was still world heavyweight champion when he visited Upper Hutt in February 1979.

His trip was organised by the late Heretaunga boxing coach Alan Scaife who had earlier taken a team of Kiwi kids to Pennsylvania to fight a Muhammad Ali amateur boxing team.

Muhammad Ali, the magnificent heavyweight champion whose fast fists and irrepressible personality transcended sports and captivated the world, has died. He was 74.

Scaife suggested the American team return the trip to New Zealand and bring Ali.

The champion duly obliged and was mobbed by fans who gathered to meet him at Wellington Airport.

"Like an elderly statesman, he came through the terminal concourse doors," The Evening Post reported at the time. "He picked up a little girl, whispered in her ear that he loved her and kissed her."

Ali then moved among the crowd, singling out Maori men, baiting and sparring and giving fans a showboating performance they would remember the rest of their lives, the paper said.

He then turned on his famous outspoken charm for his enthralled Kiwi supporters.

"Nine people out of 10 in the United States don't know this place exists," he said. "Like Columbus discovered America, I've discovered you."

Ali was then whisked to Upper Hutt where he signed a visitors' book at then-mayor Rex Kirton's office and performed his famous centre-ring "shuffle".

Later in the day the champ won over teenagers at Heretaunga College by calling their deputy headmaster, boxer Les Nation, a weasel and sparred with a startled teacher when the bell rang.

Ali spent that night attending a charity fundraising dinner in Trentham, and golfed the next day. He then flew to Auckland, where he staged an exhibition night with fellow boxers Jimmy Ellis and Joe Bugner.