Former football player fights for UFC opportunity

James Krause

DeKALB — Some people can see their titles, roles or identity in professional life chiseled into stone and unchanged for large chunks of their life.

Heavyweight mixed martial artist Alton Meeks can say his life and career might be better suited to be written on an etch and sketch, figuring out what works before things get shaken up and starting over again.

A former NIU football player, wrestler and National Guard recruit, Meeks hopes to add UFC fighter to his long resume when he fights for an opportunity to get signed at 7 p.m. on June 18, when he faces Yorgan De Castro at Dana White’s Contender Series.

Meeks was a quarterback, linebacker and state champion wrestler at Boone High School in Orlando, Florida. 

When he arrived at Iowa State in 2012, the coaches moved him to safety on the defensive side of the ball. Then the Cyclones moved him to weak side outside linebacker, then middle linebacker where he started a few games and strong side linebacker to end the season. 

When the Cyclones’ tight end graduated after the 2014 season, he was asked to go back to offense to fill the hole. Meeks had no desire to do so.

“Things fell apart there with me and the coaching staff,” Meeks said. “I really wasn’t wanting to move over to tight end since I was slated to start at middle linebacker.” 

The redshirt sophomore transferred to Iowa Western where he accumulated 30 credit hours in a semester to remain eligible for the NCAA. He was also playing for the Reivers, notching 52 tackles that season.

The central Florida native made his next move to a place that had buzz among those in the Sunshine State, NIU.

“Being from Florida, most people know Northern Illinois because they played Florida State in the Orange Bowl,” Meeks said. “They’re obviously a high-profile school because Northern Illinois wins the [Mid-American Conference] almost every year.”

Even through all the changing environments, Meeks looks back fondly on the connections he made with coaches, teammates and others along the way.

“It was kind of hectic,” Meeks said. “Still, I made a lot of connections at each school and made a lot of friends.”

After a season at tight end for the Huskies, Meeks graduated with a degree in business and ended his football career. It wasn’t long until Meeks was competing again, returning to wrestling and making the U23 World Team Trials Finals at 130 kilograms as an alternate.

“I just missed competing,” Meeks said. “When I got back into it, I didn’t think it was going to go where it went. I was just kind of messing around with it thinking I’d go somewhere and coach. When it came down to it I just really missed competing and being in that environment.”

His desire for competition led him somewhere that took his abilities beyond wrestling. Meeks joined the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program, enlisting in the National Guard while also competing to make the program’s Greco-Roman team.

Meeks was involved in a car crash two days before heading to basic training and said he’s now in the process of being discharged due to his injuries.

Meeks time competing seemed to be over, working in construction while training on the side. While Meeks’ life has been consumed by competition in the athletic arena, he was content with his job despite the physical toll it took on him.

“We were out in the hot Florida sun eight hours a day, but I was doing that so I could continue to train,” Meeks said. “I’d wake up at 5 a.m, go to work, get off of work around 3:30, go straight from there to a training session and maybe get a lift in and be home by 9 and fall asleep. Football taught me a lot about time management because it can take a lot out of your day.”

Things changed for Meeks when a coach at the gym he trained at, Fusion X-Cel in Orlando, asked him to workout with a UFC fighter.

“I practiced with him the one time and he said ‘Hey man, you’re pretty good. You should take up fighting,’” Meeks said. “Some of the other guys said ‘Yeah you should do it.’ They told me they had an amateur fight coming up.”

Meeks signed on for his first amateur fight on Oct. 14, 2017 at Combat Night 84, except the then 23-year old fighter had an issue. The man entering the mixed martial arts arena had never trained in striking or submission grappling.

“I had rolled around as a little kid and thrown on a choke hold, but never did anything serious,” Meeks said. “Between signing up and the one fight, I had gone to one technique class for kickboxing. But I had never really been trained in that.”

A whirlwind of emotions greeted Meeks as he walked into the cage for his first fight, a mix of happiness to compete, fear of his inexperience, and doubt.

“There was excitement, but there was also fear and just this sense of ‘Wow, this is the dumbest thing I’ve ever done. I don’t know anything about this,’” Meeks said. “Here I am walking into a steel cage with another guy and we’re going to punch each other in the face.”

Meeks would win his first fight on a split decision and win his next two amateur fights before going pro, while also continuing to work. Meeks said lower level fighting alone wasn’t enough to support him.

“Early on in fighting, there is very little money in it,” Meeks said. “You have to have a job, you can’t live off what you make in a fight.”

After a difficult college career, a short return to wrestling competition, a car crash, countless hours in the Florida sun and three pro wins, Meeks is set for a chance to impress UFC President Dana White and earn a contract. Meeks said the opportunity rewards his long hours and hard work.

“It means the world to me,” Meeks said. “I had been putting in 15 hour days just constantly working. I was doing all of this for this opportunity where I could fight and make money and live comfortably. I’ve been putting myself through all this torture to get here.”

Meeks fight with De Castro is the opening bout of the June 18 card and is available on ESPN+.