MMA fighter Justin Wren discusses how he found inspiration for his new book in the Congo.
Best known as a quarterfinalist on The Ultimate Fighter, Justin Wren’s career and life has had its ups-and-downs with drugs and depression. In 2013, Wren found a higher purpose in his life and started Fight for the Forgotten, an initiative to aid program that focuses on helping the Pygmy tribes that have been taken advantage of in the rainforest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Wren has helped release many of the imprisoned Pygmies in exchange for water wells, but has also helped build the resources for the tribe to self-sustain itself once freed. He chronicles his journey to the Congo in his new book Fight for the Forgotten: How a Mixed Martial Artist Stopped Fighting for Himself and Started Fighting For Others. The book is co-written with SI.com freelance writer Loretta Hunt.
SI caught up with Wren to discuss his experiences and the process of writing the book.
SI: A lot of people are familiar with your name from Ultimate Fighter but there was also once a downward spiral to your life that involved drugs. How did that happen?
Wren: That actually started before I started fighting but I think I did a good job of hiding it well. I had an injury where I tore my ulnar collateral ligament and broke my elbow. I had an ankle and knee doctor do my surgery because we had a battle with the insurance company. I wanted a good guy to do my surgery but I had to wait at least a good four months. The doctors gave me a bunch of pain medicine to hold me over and I developed an addiction to different kinds of narcotics.
I battled with that throughout my entire fighting career. Even on the Ultimate Fighter, I snuck in narcotics and Oxycontin because that could wipe away an entire day if I needed it to. After Ultimate Fighter, I felt that I didn’t do everything that I could’ve done to win. A lot of people thought I had won the fight and it was a controversial decision. I coped with that through different kinds of drugs from cocaine to oxycontin to valium or Xanax – anything I could get my hands on.
SI: How’d you manage to make things better?
Wren: I was 11 months sober and I changed the way I live my life but I also found my personal faith. I felt that I wasn’t necessarily born to fight against people but shifted to fight for people. I stepped away from fighting and was trying to seek out how I could help people. In the second chapter of the book, I found myself asking God what I wanted to do with my life. I had a vision and I saw myself in the forest walking down a path. I heard this drumming and distinct singing, sort of like yodeling. Then I got into a village and noticed people’s ribs enough to know they were sick and didn’t have clean water. I knew they were hated by everyone around them. I knew they were enslaved and they felt forgotten.
I grew up getting bullied in elementary school. I would sit at a lunch table by myself and I dealt with depression for 10 years. Suicidal thoughts were off and on in that span of time, so I could relate to being forgotten. For four days, I felt great after the vision happened. Eventually I told someone and he said, “Oh my God. That’s the pygmies. They’re in the Congo and I happen to be going soon.” There were rebels that were taking over, Pygmies were being killed. He asked, “Do you want to come with me?” In my mind, I said Absolutely not. In my heart, I knew I had to. I would fall in love with them. I wanted to find a way to help.
SI: There are several parts of the book that are strong. There are scenes that involve cannibalism. How did you strike the balance between telling the events of what happened without losing the reader to gruesome details?
Wren: We had to keep ourselves mindful of where we could engage people with the tough stuff but also try to bring them back in with something positive or light-hearted. There’s times where I would hear stories or see things and get sick to my stomach or nauseous. I hope it grips people’s hearts. I hope it gets people to do something greater in their lives and fight for someone, whether it is in the States or worldwide.
SI: Anything left out?
Wren: I left out a part where I was being shown pictures of these child soldiers that were maybe 30 or 40 kilometers from where I was. They were about 13 years old and they had a red chin because they have a human heart in their hand that they took a bite out of. They killed Pygmies and ate them. Another kid had an arm of a human person. These were child soldiers that had been stolen from their families and are made believe that they have to stay in battle to live.
SI: Would your book be considered half your own survivor story and the other half the survivor story of the Pygmy people?
Wren: I would say half the book is about me and the other half is about the Pygmies. But I hope 100% of it gives them a voice to their problem and their suffering. I hope people fall in love with the Pygmies. I feel like that anyone that has ever met them, except for the surrounding rebels, you just instantly see that they have an amazing culture. They truly love one another. More than just a survival story, it’s a story about overcoming the things that hold us back.
As an organization, Fight For the Forgotten’s mission is three things: defend the weak, love being loved and empower the voiceless. We can create an opportunity for these people out of their poverty. If we can give them jobs and hope out of their oppression, I think that’s where we see things change.
SI: How do you feel about the term hero?
Wren: It’s kind of crazy that random people on Twitter, Facebook or at the fight have used the term ‘hero.’ That’s not how I would define myself ever. I would define myself as ‘The dude that found his family half-way across the world and decided I want to live my life not for myself but for them.’ My duty in life is to give them a voice and connect resources that we have here that they would never have available for themselves there. I can connect the dots.
SI: What are your own goals for the MMA career and the foundation’s projects?
Wren: For fighting, I need to build myself back up and get experience and become a serious fighter again. I think that can take a year or two. Five or seven years from now, I think I can be a champion. Being a champion in Bellator is a realistic goal because a lot of the current champions are about 35 or 37 in the heavyweight division. Time is on my side despite the five-year layoff.
If I can I can fight and be known as “The Big Pygmy” here and be known as “Efeosa,” which means “The man who loves us.” That’s family. They take care of each other. I’m not better than them. I’ve just been dealt a better hand of cards.” I want to use my career as a way to help thousands.
We already have land and we want to keep building and working hard. We want to break ground on a new building called Shalom Solutions, which means peaceful solutions. It will be a community developing center where people can come in from different parts of war-torn Eastern Congo and hopefully see a shining star. Someone can see that these are locals that are changing the country and it doesn’t take the NGOs or UNICEF or their own government. They can have jobs and do it themselves.