Alonzo Menifield is something of an MMA unicorn these days.
A young and promising light heavyweight with athletic pedigree and an undefeated record to boot? That’s enough to turn heads in an era where the 205-pound pool is hitting the shallows and prospects can cross into world-title contention in mere months.
But even before Menifield caught the gaze of MMA matchmakers, he was already a rarity in his own right. A self-professed child of the courts, the 29-year-old overcame an upbringing that would sink most men, a path of violence and rejection that led all the way to his present day, where Menifield stands steadfastly as the 1-in-100 statistic that fashioned a shovel from the scrapheap and dug himself a way out.
Thus it’s oddly fitting, in the curious, circular way the world sometimes works, that on Friday at LFA 13, when Menifield takes the next step of his MMA journey in a featured bout against fellow light heavyweight prospect Khadzhimurat Bestaev, Menifield will return to the California streets where his troubles first began.
It’ll be the first time Menifield competes in his old home state in nearly a decade, dating all the way to his college football days. And the trip back to the West Coast carries plenty of memories.
Menifield was just 11 years old when he and his older brother, Cecil, were taken from their mother by the state of California.
The boys’ biological father had passed away and their mom, an immigrant from Belize, was lost, drowning under a deluge of street drugs. Menifield shuffled through 12 foster homes after that, never staying long in one place. It was a lonely and confusing time, and the separation from any sense of familial love or support furthered an anger inside of Menifield that he could never quite explain.
“It was bad,” Menifield says. “You can imagine, me being a kid and being raised by my mom, and then (being) taken, there was a lot of hostility there. I was fighting in school. I was fighting everywhere. I was in a probation school at one point. I was in juvenile hall for fighting. I got to a point where kids started pressing charges on me, because I was in the system, the group homes, and they would press charges and I remember going to juvenile hall for that. And I realized they can take my freedom away.”
Fighting was never supposed to be like that for Menifield.
In his younger days, he was the little boy performing faux-karate battles in the backyard, escaping for hours into fantasies about the warrior’s way under the sun-drenched afternoons of the Golden State. He was the kung fu fanatic scrawling DragonBall Z characters across scraps of paper, the kid obsessing over old Bruce Lee flicks. Martial arts were simply the stuff of daydreams, distractions from a life that needed all the distractions it could find.
But things changed as Menifield grew older and the cold reality of his surroundings set in. As more and more foster homes deserted him, as more and more budding fathers and mothers turned their backs to him, Menifield’s anger and self-sabotage only grew.
“I would get into fights with the kids there or I would get in fights with the people who owned the place, with staff,” Menifield says. “I think that was mainly it, just because I wasn’t easy to handle, and I was difficult. I didn’t accept it and I was just taking it out on everybody.
“It just felt awful. At one point, I remember just begging Jesus to help me. I know it’s kind of cheesy because part of today’s society is we don’t really go by that, but that’s the truth. I just kept thinking about that. And I wasn’t big in the spiritual realm or religious at all, but just the thought of that — because I was introduced when I was a kid, so I kind of kept that close — I just kept saying, ‘everything is going to be alright, everything is going to be alright,’ that’s kind of what made me stick it out and not become too crazy.”
The constant strife eventually landed Menifield and his brother at The Way In, a Hollywood-based shelter for troubled youths that Menifield says felt more akin to a prison than anything else, with its group-style shower area, high staff turnover and rigid visitation policies. It was there the Menifield brothers first met Godwin Ezenwa, an African immigrant who worked as a counselor at the facility.
Over time, Cecil pleaded with Ezenwa to adopt him and Alonzo, to become the father neither of the boys ever had. And ultimately Ezenwa accepted, sensing something in the teenagers who had been forsaken by the system and abandoned by the world.
Though they were old enough to be in high school, neither Alonzo nor Cecil could read or write when Ezenwa took them in. But Ezenwa strived to give the boys as normal of a childhood as he could with the few years of adolescence they had left.
“That was Godwin,” Menifield says. “He made it happen. And I guess I got a feel for what’s normal, and then from there I took advantage of it.”
The sudden introduction into public schooling was a challenge, but it ended up transforming Menifield’s young life. For the first time, the troubled teen came to understand a sense of freedom he never truly knew existed, and nowhere was he able to express that newfound freedom more instinctually than on the football field.
Menifield took to the game like he was bred for it, a natural-born linebacker patrolling the trenches like a laser-guided missile, just waiting for the moment to unleash years of pent-up fury. The violence of the gridiron suited him. Despite his late arrival to football, Menifield was able to muster out a scholarship to Texas A&M University-Commerce, a Division II school where he split his time between the game and his studies. Within a few years, he left university as a bonafide college graduate with a Bachelor’s in Criminal Justice — a far cry from the 15-year-old foster kid who couldn’t read or write.
Menifield continued the pursuit of his football goals after college, mostly because it felt like what he was supposed to do. The game had taken him far in life, plus people always told him how good he was at it. He didn’t want to disappoint, so he kept the dream alive with stops at the Arena Football League and Canadian Football League. But by the time the CFL entered the picture, Menifield realized he was fooling himself. The weekly jiu-jitsu classes he took up on the side to help his conditioning had reignited a passion that dated all the way back to his childhood days, back to the DragonBall Z doodles and kung fu duels in the backyard.
And so he made the switch. He hasn’t looked back since.
Menifield debuted as an amateur a little more than two years ago, knocking out Eric Miguel with a vicious flourish in just 45 seconds.
The quick finish was almost disappointing in a bizarre sort of way, an anticlimactic release after so much mental build-up. Menifield topped himself the next time out, scoring another 16-second knockout, then kept the good times rolling with a 38-second flattening of Division II All-American wrestler Zach Rosol on a Bellator undercard in his professional debut.
Then, this past September, heads really turned after Menifield knocked out Brock Combs so hard at RFA 43 that one of Combs’ teeth bore through Menifield’s glove and embedded itself in his fist, tearing a mess of ligaments on its way in.
“I don’t know how that happened, man,” Menifield says, laughing. “I want to blame somebody but I can’t. We wrapped my hand, I went in there and I hit him with a combination in the second round. I guess I threw a weird uppercut and his teeth went through his mouth guard, through the padding of my glove and my wrap, and it sliced me like a knife.
“I remember being at the hospital and the doctor took my tendon and he slapped it outward, like, ‘yep, they cut it. We’re going to have to put that back together.’ I’m like, whaaat?! So they had to reattach my tendon. I had some of [the tooth] in my hand. They took it out, they cleaned it, gave me shots. It was crazy, man. I don’t know how that happened.”
It took Menifield nearly a half-year to rid his hand of the damage caused by Combs’ pearly whites, but now Menifield is back to 100 percent and ready to embrace the next step of his blossoming young career. Bestaev, his Russian foe at LFA 13, is a 6-foot-6 goliath of the division, one who is riding a trio of consecutive stoppages in a combined 90 seconds. The winner is set up to get a major promotional push from the LFA machine, and it likely won’t be long afterward until the big organizations start calling.
That’s a lot of pressure to place on a new-blood like Menifield, but pressure is nothing compared to what he’s already overcome. From circumstances that seemed inescapable all the way to where he is today, no one could have foreseen Menifield’s path. He is a college-educated former professional football player, a survivor who escaped and thrived, who now returns home as a new man with a new goal. And above all else, Menifield is living proof the hand one is dealt in life doesn’t have to be the end.
“It’s the decisions you make,” he says.
“I pride myself on being a guy who listens and reads stuff that’s inspiring or motivational. I definitely had a bad hand that was dealt, and I told myself a long time ago that I was going to make the best of it. And when I look back, I can say I definitely made the best of what I’ve been given. The decisions weren’t all perfect, but hey, that’s the journey. My mindset is always just to be positive and just always strive to be better the next day, strive on being the best I can as an individual for myself.”