Justin Wren: The Big Pygmy Returns

Jeremy Botter@jeremybotterMMA Senior WriterAugust 26, 2015

Photo courtesy Justin Wren

Justin Wren knelt and leaned over Andibo, an 18-month-old infant who had grown to mean so much to him since inexplicably he found himself here, in the stirring wilds of the African Congo.

Andibo suffered from a parasitic infection all too common in the region. His mother, a widowed slave, had offered the local hospital eggs, a chicken and a bag of charcoal to purchase the treatment that would save Andibo's life; it equaled roughly $1. But the doctor in charge of the facility refused care, saying that he wouldn't waste medicine on a pygmy "animal."

A few years earlier, Wren was a UFC fighter. Now, he felt helpless as he watched the child take his last breath.

Andibo's funeral
Andibo's funeralPhoto courtesy Justin Wren

Wren helped fashion shovels made from tree branches. He and his friends dug a tiny grave. They buried Andibo in a casket Wren had purchased for $50.

His hands ached, blistered from the rough stick used to dig the grave. He was filled with sadness, desperation and anger. He didn't know what he could feasibly do.

But he had to do something for these forgotten people who had come to mean so much to him.

By the time Wren stepped in a cage to face Josh Robertson back in July 2010, his personal life had spiraled out of control.

He knew at age 13 that he wanted to be a mixed martial artist, and he began pursuing his dream at 15. By 19 years old, he was a professional fighter, using his big heavyweight body and background in wrestling to good use. Coached in high school by famed wrestler Kenny Monday, Wren seemingly had a bright future in his chosen profession.

But behind the curtain, he was a wreck. When he was 18 years old and living at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Wren suffered a horrific arm injury during a match with two-time Olympian Dremiel Byers. He broke a few bones, tore his ulnar collateral ligament and dislocated his shoulder. The doctors told him there was a good chance he'd never wrestle again.

Faced with this news, Wren slid into depression. He began taking oxycodone to stem the pain from the injury. The pills turned into a deep addiction. Oxycodone turned into marijuana, which turned into cocaine. He drank heavily.

Even in the throes of addiction, he fulfilled his teenage dream of making it to the Ultimate Fighting Championship as a cast member on the all-heavyweight season 10 of The Ultimate Fighter. He lost in the show's tournament but was invited to fight on the finale card in Las Vegas.

Two days before the bout, Wren sat in his hotel room smoking pot and popping pills. He was not drug-tested on fight night and dropped a split decision to fellow castmate Jon Madsen. The UFC released him but said he would be able to return after picking up a couple of wins on the independent scene.

But by the time 2011 rolled around, Wren knew he was missing something. He was certain his life contained a higher purpose, something greater than just fighting, but he wasn't sure what it was. He received an offer to fight for the now-defunct DREAM organization in Japan, but he was conflicted.

He prayed, asking God for guidance. And then one day, he had a dream. He was in a lush jungle surrounded by desperate, hurting people who were enslaved and hated by those around him. They were starving and ill.

Photo courtesy Justin Wren

At first, he didn't mention the dream to anyone, because he figured they would assume that he was crazy. But a few days after the dream, he opened up and told a friend about it.

"Oh yeah, that's the Pygmy people," Caleb said. "You dreamed about the Pygmies in the Congo."

Wren had never heard of the Pygmies. All he knew is that, immediately after seeing the forest and the hurting people in his dream, he'd written down a phrase he remembered:

The Forgotten.

Photo courtesy Justin Wren

The Democratic Republic of the Congo—typically known as the Congo—is located in Central Africa. Formerly known as Zaire, it is the second-largest country in Africa and the 11th-largest in the world. It has a population of more than 75 million people, making it the 19th-most populated country in the world. It is a place rich in natural resources, but corruption has limited most advancement.

According to the Human Development Index—a composite tool used for measuring life expectancy, education and incomethe Congo ranks 186th out of 187 countries. It is a desolate and poor place, with little in the way of luxuries. Clean water is scarce.

And the people worst off in this country full of desperate people are the Pygmies.

"Pygmy" is a word used to describe an ethnic group of people who are, for lack of a better term, short in stature. It is defined by anthropologists as a "member of any group where adult men are, on average, less than 4'11" tall," according to Wikipedia. It is a term mostly associated with Central Africa. Theories have been developed to explain the short stature of the Pygmy people; some say it could have something to do with adapting to low levels of ultraviolet light, and therefore vitamin D, in the rainforests where they live.

There are at least a dozen known Pygmy groups, though most are not associated with one another. All are at least partial hunter-gatherers, living nearly exclusively on the things they can kill or collect in their immediate vicinities. Estimates say that anywhere from 250,000 to 600,000 Pygmies live in the Congo rainforests.

To say the Pygmies are an oppressed people is quite an understatement. In 2004, the British Broadcasting Corporation reported that Minority Rights Group International was bringing evidence to the ICC that they were victims of genocide. Mbuti Pygmy representative Sinafasi Makelo said that his people had been "hunted down and eaten as though they were game animals," per Democracy Now. In North Kivu, a group known as "the erasers" hunted pygmies and ate them in an effort to clear the land.

Men and women are regularly raped by soldiers, who believe that doing so will grant them superpowers. In 2011, the New York Times reported that a woman is raped nearly every minute in the Congo.

Some in the area consider the Pygmies to be subhuman; they are viewed as part human and part animal. Some believe that eating their flesh "can confer magical powers," according to the BBC. In the Congo, many Pygmies live as slaves to a group of people known as the Mokpalas, which translates to "non-Pygmies". The slavemasters believe they own the Pygmies from birth, and the Pygmies are responsible for chores, hunting and more. They are rarely paid, if at all.

In 2009, a law granting protections to the Pygmy people was placed before the Congolese parliament. The law has never passed.

Woman carrying a bag of charcoal
Woman carrying a bag of charcoalPhoto courtesy Justin Wren

According to Minority Rights Group International, there is evidence of mass killing, rape and cannibalism. Though pygmies are targets for nearly everyone in the area, most of the violence can be attributed to the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, a rebel force that controls much of the Congo's north. A 2012 study by American University notes that the total number of Pygmies killed during the Congo and Rwanda civil wars totals more than 70,000.

Congo is a place, and the Pygmies are a people, without much in the way of hope.

In August 2011, Wren and Caleb made the decision to travel to the Congo. He flew from the United States to Amsterdam and then on to Uganda, where he caught a private plane that took him deep into the Congo.

When he arrived, he saw his dream unfolding before his eyes.

The people were just as he had envisioned them. They lived in utter poverty and were oppressed by those living around them. Clean water was nearly impossible to find. The Pygmies did not own their land and had nothing to call their own. They were slaves without any hope of setting themselves free.

They were called "The Forest People." But once Wren arrived, he discovered another name, one they used to describe themselves.

The Forgotten People. It was the same term Wren had seen in his dream.

Then and there, Wren knew he was supposed to help, but he didn't know how. Compounding things were his corrupt translators and government officials, who could not understand why anyone would want to help the Pygmies, whom they regarded as less than human.

"I felt helpless. All we saw was suffering," Wren said. "They didn’t have any land of their own. They were oppressed, didn’t have clean water. They were hungry. Everyone hated them. They were enslaved.

"We left feeling defeated."

Arriving back in the States, Wren told friends and family of his decision to return and help the Pygmy people in whatever way he could. By and large, they were not supportive. By giving up his fighting career, he was giving up on the dream he'd been chasing since he was 13 years old.

Photo courtesy Justin Wren

"They tried to discourage me. They'd say, OK, you went there. Now get back to fighting. I had close friends and family members that said I was wasting my talent," he said. "They said I was going to waste the best years of my life, that it was too dangerous."

Wren didn't know how he was going to help the Pygmies. All he could do was look at the friends who urged him to get back to fighting and tell them they were right.

He knew he was making a decision based on faith, giving up a solid income for the unknown.

But Wren was a fighter, and he believed fighters have a unique mindset that others do not. When faced with obstacles, many people will figure out a way to go around them, or they will retreat. Wren looked at the problem and tried to figure out a strategy.

"I didn't know how I was going to help them," Wren said. "I just knew I was supposed to go."

Wren returned to the Congo, partnering with the local Shalom University. His plan was to figure out a way to buy the Pygmies their own land, drill wells for clean water and then teach them to harvest their own food. He stayed for more than one month that second time and then went back in October 2013.

This time, he would stay for one year.

He created a foundation, Fight for the Forgotten. He helped purchase 2,470 acres of land that was given to the Pygmies. They began digging water wells, one at a time. Today, Fight for the Forgotten has dug 25 wells, with more on the way.

He began working with agriculturists, bringing seeds to the region and teaching the Pygmies how to grow and harvest their own crops. He helped create a food source that did not exist before he arrived the first time.

The Pygmies, once fearful of the massive Wren, accepted him as one of their own. They gave him two names: Efeosa, which means "the man who loves us," and Mbuti MangBo, which means "the big pygmy." (Wren is 6'3", 265 pounds.) He was given his own Pygmy family. He continued to grow Fight for the Forgotten; today, the organization has 20 full-time employees.

Photo courtesy Justin Wren

One night, Wren was with his fiancee under the forest canopy. They had no mosquito net, and roaches fell from the trees above and landed on her, who had never camped outside before.

Wren had a realization. What if he returned to mixed martial arts and used it as a platform to spread awareness of the Pygmy people? His fiancee had mentioned it before as a possibility, but this was the first time Wren actually considered it a real option.

He'd spent over four years carefully stomping out his own desires to fight. He was terrified that if he returned to fighting, the addictions would return.

"I guess I thought I could only do one or the other. I could fight, or I could fight for the forgotten," he said. "I thought I couldn’t do both. I wrestled with that for a long time. The desire to fight kinda left me for two or three years. I was still a fan of the sport, but I didn’t think about doing it."

After Wren buried Andibo, the Pygmy chief came to him.

"Nobody knows what's happening to us. Nobody knows our suffering. We don't have a voice," the chief said. "Will you help us have a voice?"

Working on water wells
Working on water wellsPhoto courtesy Justin Wren

Something inside Wren's chest exploded. Andibo's death had affected him profoundly, and for the first time, he realized how much good he could do for the pygmy people by returning to the fighting world. It was no longer about him or about the fear of his addictions returning. Now, it was about a cause he cared deeply for.

"I just told the chief yes, that I would help them have a voice," he said.

Wren talked to Scott Coker, the president of Bellator MMA. Wren still didn't feel entirely sold on the idea, mostly because he was still wary of the ghosts of the pasts returning to haunt him.

"I have to keep myself grounded," he said. "If I don’t, I can fall right back into that stuff. But I have a great support system around me."

Coker told him that Bellator would give him a platform to share his story and the story of the Pygmy people. Wren decided to move forward with it and signed with Bellator. He will debut on Friday night against Josh Burns at Bellator 141.

He has also written a book that tells his story and that of the Pygmy people; it will be released on September 15.

But there's more to this than just the platform Bellator offers. Wren plans on donating 100 percent of his win bonuses to the cause. He'll speak out for the Pygmy people and give them the voice they lack, but he will also use his financial gains to help dig more wells, buy more seeds and replant trees that have been deforested by those seeking to exploit the land's rich minerals.

Photo courtesy Justin Wren

From his first day among the Pygmies, Wren swore that he would not promise them anything he couldn't deliver. He would not say he'd deliver clean water unless he was absolutely sure he could do so.

He maintains that mindset today. His fear of addiction returning is omnipresent, because that's how being an addict works: Once it has taken root in you, part of it is always there, no matter how much distance you think you've put between who you are now and what you were then.

But Wren is resolved. The man who once dreamed of becoming a fighter now hopes to use that dream to attain a new dream: to continually free, support and love a people that are downtrodden and cast aside.

The Big Pygmy is back, and he is no longer fighting for himself.

Jeremy Botter covers mixed martial arts for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.


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