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As a teenager, Ronald DiNicola never dreamed he’d meet his hero, the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali. Then a scrawny kid growing up in the blue-collar town of Erie, Pa., DiNicola boxed for his Catholic boys’ school and closely tracked Ali’s career. DiNicola was such a big fan of Ali’s that in 1974, he sent his local paper a letter supporting Ali, who was then the underdog in his fight against George Foreman in Zaire. Ali won that fight, and became the champion of the world. Now a 45-year-old Los Angeles litigator, DiNicola not only knows Ali, he bills him, too. The Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp partner is Ali’s outside general counsel. It was DiNicola who negotiated Ali’s rights in the movie “Ali,” starring Will Smith — just one of a series of deals for the champ in his post-fighting career. DiNicola met the ex-boxer 13 years ago through a mutual friend, the sports photographer Howard Bingham, who is also the executive producer of the new film. Shortly after he met Ali, DiNicola began handling the Ali family’s merchandising, licensing, endorsements and personal-appearance deals. Recently, he’s been negotiating the terms of a deal with Hollywood producers in which Ali would promote racial tolerance between Muslims and non-Muslims in public service announcements. DiNicola also handled an endorsement contract with The Coca-Cola Co., as well as a merchandising endorsement deal with FUBU, a hip-hop clothing company. At press time DiNicola was negotiating with producers over details for Ali’s 60th birthday party, which was to be televised in January on CBS. Is it intimidating to represent The Greatest? “When Ron first started working with us, he was almost paranoid about representing Muhammad,” says Ali’s wife, Lonnie Ali, who says she talks to DiNicola once or twice a day. “He’s relaxed a little since then. Ron is like family.” Among DiNicola’s jobs is to fight for Ali’s trademarks. He has applied for trademark protection for the phrases “The Greatest,” “Louisville Lip,” and “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” The work is perfect for a No. 1 fan turned No. 1 lawyer. “I had to submit a declaration of why he’s ‘The Greatest,’ ” says DiNicola. So the lawyer assembled newspaper articles, tapes and other materials to prove that, because so many people called Ali by that name, it had become his trademark. Ali received preliminary protection in 1999. “ It’s a regular process to police the marketplace,” says DiNicola, who has filed several suits on behalf of Ali. Suits are pending in both Los Angeles and New York against companies that allegedly used Ali’s likeness or name without permission. DiNicola is the latest in a long list of Ali’s lawyers over the years. Ali was first represented by a group of investors from Louisville, followed by Charles Lomax, who is now the general counsel of Don King Productions Inc. in Florida. Ronald Tweel of Michie, Hamlett, Lowry, Rasmussen and Tweel in Charlottesville, Va., handles some tax work for the Ali family. In addition to Ali, DiNicola represents welterweight champion Oscar de la Hoya, as well as other boxing promoters, managers, and celebrities. DiNicola’s own experience in the ring helps him connect with those clients, he says. After his amateur fights in high school, DiNicola went on to box in the Marine Corps, where, coincidentally, he befriended Leon Spinks, the boxer who would later defeat Ali in 1978. “I understood [Ali's] psychology by having been a former fighter. I can speak with a little more credibility,” says DiNicola. All true, says Lonnie Ali: “The man can hold his own with the best of them.” A good uppercut punch doesn’t win in court, but it’s good to have a lawyer who’s ready to rumble.

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