NEW YORK — When Will Smith gets in the ring this summer playing Muhammad Ali in the Columbia Pictures biopic, he’ll have Oscar-nominated director Michael Mann in his corner.

Mann agreed to make the Ali biopic his next film shortly after emerging as the No. 1 contender last week (Daily Variety, Feb. 17, 2000). Aside from an A-list pairing of star and director, the Mann hire is exceptional in that he generally originates or writes every project he directs.

Mann, who was just nominated for directing the critically acclaimed “The Insider,” had been considering that film among several high-profile projects that include the Lakeshore Entertainment-based actioner “Shooter” with Brad Pitt.

He is also considering a fact-based Touchstone film about the drug trade in the U.S. and Mexico by “Armageddon” scribe Shane Salerno, which could shape up as Mann’s back-to-back follow-up to Ali, even though Disney execs haven’t seen a script, which has been a closely held secret by Mann.

The director has a slew of other projects in various stages, ranging from a Howard Hughes biopic with Leonardo DiCaprio and scripter John Logan to a Julius Caesar epic with Tom Hanks and scripter John Orloff.

Mann’s interest in the Ali pic gave Columbia the heavyweight helmer execs looked for after Barry Sonnenfeld was scratched from the card last year. While erroneous reports surfaced that Smith had exited with Sonnenfeld, the actor has been steadfast in his determination to play the charismatic boxer.

The Peters Entertainment-produced Ali project was scripted by the “Nixon” team of Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson. It covers Ali’s emergence as a cocky pretty boy named Cassius Clay who defied his critics by defeating all comers, including Sonny Liston, thought to be invincible at the time. Ali found himself at the forefront of the civil rights and anti-war movements of the ’60s, transcending sport to become one of the most influential figures of the day.

The film, which will be shepherded by Col exec veep Matt Tolmach, and will be produced by Jon Peters, James Lassiter and Paul Ardaji. Howard Bingham will exec produce. Mann is repped by CAA.