Muhammad Ali’s lesson to Abu Dhabi children

Muhammad Ali visited pupils at Al Nahda National Schools during a stopover in the capital in 1986, speaking about the importance of aspiring to be better in every way possible.

Muhammad Ali at Al Nahda School in Abu Dhabi. Ahmed sits in the front row wearing a blue jacket. The class teacher, Mr Davis, wears glasses and stands behind Ali. Shane is stood in line with Ali, second from the left, and wears a blue jacket. Ahmed stands next to Shane. Wael is second from the right, in line with Ali. Courtesy Awad Mustafa
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Thirty years ago, a group of Abu Dhabi classmates had the opportunity of a lifetime – to learn how to be a better person, from none other than The Greatest.

Muhammad Ali visited pupils at Al Nahda National Schools during a stopover in the capital in 1986, speaking about the importance of aspiring to be better in every way possible. The visit was captured in a photograph with the boxing legend, who died at 74 on Saturday and will be buried today.

Wael Mustafa was 12-years-old when he met Ali.

“It was an initiative taken by Al Nahda National Schools to introduce role models before us students to set an example and inspire us,” said Mr Mustafa, now a 42-year-old businessman based in Khartoum. “I recall him talking about life being full of challenges and the importance of keeping focused and dedicated to our cause and fulfilling our dreams to become future leaders.”

During his visit, Ali met the school chairman, Abdullah Naser, and the then headmaster Akhtar Mushtaq. Former students described the anticipation leading up to the visit as a very exciting time.

“The visit was some time at the beginning of 1986, around January or February,” said Ahmed Al Azen, 43, an immigration lawyer in Quebec.

“A couple of months before he arrived we were told about his visit, but we did not believe the teachers and thought [it was] a joke,” Mr Al Azen said. “A few weeks before the arrival, they confirmed it to us and we really got excited.”

Mr Al Azen described the day of Ali’s visit as very normal and organised.

“He was talking about how happy he was to be in Abu Dhabi and how [he was] surprised [at] how the country was developing at such a fast pace, and how he was impressed with school,” said Mr Al Azen, who was in Grade 7 at the time.

“His concern about people and his sympathy towards people is what really surprised me.”

Hamad Bachi, chief executive of the Abu Dhabi-based National Marine Alliance, was in Grade 6 at the time.

“I remember that he was funny and down to earth with us as kids. He kept messing with one of our classmate’s hair and it was even caught in our class picture,” Mr Bachi, 41, said.

Shane Fernandes, a former classmate of Mr Mustafa’s and Mr Al Azen’s who is now a sales manager in Doha, remembers that Ali told them to chase their dreams in life, and that they should go pursue them no matter what the challenges are.

“Growing up, I loved sports, and my dad was very much into boxing,” said Mr Fernandes.

“Ali was just a name that we heard, but after seeing the guy with his situation – with Parkinson’s – I thought to myself, what this man did and all that he has achieved, and now he is a man who can’t even speak properly, but despite all that he is still telling us to go out there and achieve what we want to.

“This was a great eye opener and kickstarter for me in my youth.”

After graduating from Al Nahda in 1992, Mr Fernandes returned home to Bangalore, India, and finished his bachelor’s degree in commerce. He eventually went to Kenya to sell wildlife resort holidays in India.

“What resonated with me from the speech is when he told us to reach out for our goals,” he said.

Ali’s visit also had a profound effect on Mr Mustafa.

“It affected me deeply and it was my first encounter with a world-class champion and figure, as well as a leader in the country. I had posters of him all over my room and I was bragging to my friends in other schools about shaking hands with Muhammad Ali.”

A few days after the school visit, he ran into Ali again while with his dad and little brother at Friday prayers.

“We shook hands again,” said Mr Mustafa. “To me that was an exciting moment – to run into my favourite role model twice in such a short time span. It was like we were already buddies. May Allah rest his soul and reward him the highest of heavens.”