The man who saved Alonzo Menifield

Alonzo Menifield will make his UFC debut against Vinicius Alves in Brooklyn next week. Brandon Magnus/DWTNCS

If it weren't for Godwin Ezenwa, Alonzo Menifield wouldn't be a college graduate. He might not even be literate, to be honest. And he certainly wouldn't be a professional fighter who's less than one week away from his debut on MMA's biggest stage.

Menifield wouldn't be any of those things if it weren't for the man who adopted the then-14-year-old and his older brother. After Menifield lost both of his parents in traumatic fashion, the odds were stacked against him. Then Ezenwa provided a true lifeline.

"I probably would be in a gang, or I would have definitely done something terrible. I'd probably be in jail, or worse, I'd be dead," Menifield, now 31, said without a hint of embellishment.

Instead, the undefeated light heavyweight, who has posted a string of highlight-reel knockouts since transitioning from pro football to MMA in 2014, will make his official UFC debut at the first UFC on ESPN+ event. It takes place Saturday at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, where Menifield (7-0) will meet Brazilian grappler Vinicius Moreira Castro (9-1) in a featured preliminary bout.

Long before he was fighting in the cage, though, Menifield was fighting everywhere else -- in school, in juvenile hall, in the dozens of foster and group homes that had him bouncing from one temporary home to the next. His was a life void of stability, of security, of peace and love.

Menifield was just 11 when the state of California removed him and his brother, Cecil, from their mother, an immigrant from Belize who disappeared into the drug world. His biological father, already long out of the picture, ultimately was killed by Los Angeles police officers during a drug-fueled highway confrontation in 2002.

"At the time, when I was in that situation, it was just sad and lonely," Menifield said. "And I had lots of anger."

Finding a home

When Menifield first met the man who would become his adoptive father, the troubled teen was in a group home called The Way In, a Los Angeles-based shelter run by The Salvation Army that helps children and teens escape street life and work toward an independent adulthood. By then, however, Menifield had largely given up.

"I had no hope of even getting out of the system," he said.

But there at age 13 he met Ezenwa, a former architect in his native Nigeria who immigrated to the U.S. and ultimately found work at The Way In, where he still works today. Like Menifield's older brother, Menifield took a shine to the loving and patient man. The brothers pushed Ezenwa to take them in permanently. Ezenwa, though, saw promise in the boys and said he had already talked to their case worker to start the adoption process.

"He broke me from the chains," Menifield said. "He just took me in out of love. ... It felt like home right away. With my mom, it was kind of rough. And then, group homes are always rough. With Godwin, we fit together perfectly."

The ever-humble Ezenwa said he was just doing his moral obligation.

"I love working with the kids from the group homes because it fulfills my Christian lifestyle," Ezenwa, now 62, said. "I like to help people who are struggling and in difficult situations because some of them come from broken homes. Some of them come from [drug-addicted] parents. I like to help them and reform them -- redirect them. That's what life is all about."

At the time, Menifield was essentially in "special education" classes, barely literate. Ezenwa got Menifield placed in mainstream classes, demanded diligent study and personal accountability and soon had Menifield thriving.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service, among all adoptions in California, only about 8 percent involve kids age 12 or older. Current Hollywood flick "Instant Family," with Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne, has earned praise from the foster care community for shining a light on a problem Menifield knew all too well.

"I knew it was rare to be taken in at such a late age, especially with all of those problems -- because I wasn't an easy case for Godwin," said Menifield, now a devoted father of two. "I was complicated, and he had to mold me into the man I am today, given I had already been molded by all kinds of other forces.

"Every time I get a quiet moment, I think about it and how extraordinary it was. That's literally why I pray and thank God every time. It wouldn't have been anything else that could have helped me."

An MMA home

Menifield currently trains at Fortis MMA alongside fighters including Ryan Spann, Kennedy Nzechukwu and Charles Byrd. The Dallas gym had a breakout year in 2018, going 40-6 in pro fights and 11-3 in the UFC.

Head coach Sayif Saud said the team is like the United Nations because it has "so many people from so many different places." But they're selective about whom they let into their group, since one bad person can throw off the entire team's chemistry. Fortis' family-like unit is a perfect fit for Menifield.

"The guys love him," Saud said. "He's a teddy bear. He's just a really lovable guy and a sweetheart."

Physically, Saud said, Menifield could be the strongest guy at Fortis. Less evident, though, is the fighter's remarkable mental toughness. Menifield is willing to share details of his childhood with teammates, but Saud said he doesn't use it as a crutch. It's merely something that drives him, not something that defines him.

"It's inside him," Saud said. "He's got a pure heart. Alonzo's a pure-hearted soul. And even though he's been through a lot of hardship, you can internalize those things that have happened to you and use them for the power of good and fuel you to be a great person. Or you can internalize them and it becomes a destructive force in your life. I think Alonzo chose the former. ...

"I respect that about him, and I respect where he's come from, but I'm more excited about where he's going."

With his UFC contract, which came after two "audition" fights in the Dana White's Contender Series of events, Menifield is an intriguing addition to the traditionally shallow 205-pound division. Although Ezenwa is proud of Menifield's early MMA success, as he was during Menifield's stints as a linebacker in the Arena Football League and Canadian Football League, he still doesn't like to watch his son's fights.

"I'm always telling him to protect his head, because of the concussions," he said.

But he knows that raising a child also means letting Menifield make his own decisions, even if he doesn't necessarily like them. It's simply part of being a dad.

And for those potential adoptive parents who read their story and think maybe they could be the real-life angel to a kid in need of a home? Ezenwa has some advice.

"Simply go for it," he said. "You shouldn't be afraid of it, because these are human beings, too. They're kids, and they're human beings. You can help refocus a life. You can shape a life. So my advice is to just go for it."