Reporter freed from Iran recounts how Ali helped save him

Story highlights

  • Ali released a statement in March 2015 expressing support for Jason Rezaian
  • "It was a turning point for me," Rezaian wrote in The Washington Post

Washington (CNN)A Washington Post reporter who spent 545 days in an Iranian prison told CNN in an exclusive interview Saturday that boxing legend Muhammad Ali helped his cause.

In March 2015, Ali, who died Friday at age 74, released a statement that said, in part, "I am sorry that I cannot be physically present to lend my support in person, but I pray my words will provide relief to the efforts to secure the release of Jason Rezaian. Insha'Allah. It is my great hope that the government and judiciary of Iran will end the prolonged detention of journalist Jason Rezaian."
    When CNN's Jim Sciutto read Rezaian Ali's statement, the journalist said he was "just getting chills as I read that again. It meant so much to me at the time."
    "I can't tell you, I can't express in words, how much it meant to me, continues to mean to me," he added.
    Ali, who converted to Islam in 1964, is revered in Iran, and Rezaian explained that when his guards heard about Ali's plea, "They started treating me in a better way. I think it brought some doubt to them about the (espionage-related) charges against me."
    Ali is an icon in Iran, Rezaian continued.
    "As he was in so many different countries, Muhammad Ali was someone the Iranian people were really drawn to, had been for many years as a sportsman but also as a Muslim and someone who was doing great charitable work throughout his entire life," Rezaian said. "He was everybody's champion, just like he was here in America and around the world."
    Rezaian, who was freed in January as part of a prisoner swap with the longtime U.S. foe, told Sciutto he's getting "better and better every day" and expressed his gratitude of the report he received during his imprisonment.
    "By and large, I'm doing pretty good," he added.