An MMA fighter isn't someone whom you equate with great humanitarian causes, but former UFC man Justin Wren is changing that mindset.
The 6'2, 250 lbs Wren's lifelong dream was to become a UFC fighter, and he set out to achieve that at an early age. He was a standout wrestler at high school level and his natural talent and desire earned him a scholarship to the U.S. Olympic Education Center at Northern Michigan University.
From there on, he ventured into MMA and had his first professional fight in 2006 at the age of 19. Three years later, he featured on The Ultimate Fighter 10, and although he lost, he had achieved what he wanted to. But then he suffered a gruesome elbow injury that nearly ended his career.
"The definition of excruciating to me is that moment [the injury occurred]," Wren told Yahoo News. "I felt like I took my arm and put it down on the mat and, I don't know, Barry Bonds or someone like that, took a baseball bat to my elbow and made it bend the other way. It was like he hit a home run on my elbow. That's how it felt."
The possibility of that injury ending his career sent him into depression. He found temporary solace in drugs, but it soon turned into a full-blown addiction. With the help of some friends and family, he overcame that setback too.
Having fought off both an injury and an addiction, he turned to god for guidance. This is when he realized his new mission in life.
"I just prayed hard," Wren said. "I said, 'God, what do you want me to do? Do you want me to fight? Do you want me to do something else?' I had the offer from Dream, and it was a good amount of money for me and it was a good matchup and all of that. As I prayed, I felt it was a no. And that's when I had the vision.
"I was dreaming even though I was awake, and I saw myself in the Congo. I didn't know it was the Congo. I saw myself in the jungle and there were these hurting people. They were sick and they were enslaved and they were thirsty and people just hated them. They were withering away with their ribs out. I saw them coughing up their lungs. It messed me up because I thought I was a crazy person."
After some time, he finally found the courage to share his dream with a friend named Caleb who instantly had a plan.
"When I finally told him, he said, 'Oh yeah, that's the Pygmies,' " Wren said. "And I go, 'Who?' And he told me that I dreamed of the Pygmies in the Congo. When I had the dream, I wrote down the words, 'The Forgotten.' Caleb told me they were known as 'The Forest People,' but if you fast forward, when I was eventually there, they told me they referred to themselves as 'The Forgotten People.'"
One thing led to another, and in 2011, Wren was in Congo via a series of connected flights. There, he found a settlement of half a million pygmy people who have been shunned by the society and forced to live as outcasts.
With their average heights being less than 4 feet 11 inches, the pygmies of Congo are already cheated by the nature. But what make matters truly worse is the discrimination, injustice and outright cruelty they are subjected to. Wren found out that these people were essentially slaves whose masters were making their lives miserable on purpose to exploit them.
"...Every official we came across, whether military or police-wise or whatever, they were just corrupt," recalled Wren. "They threatened to arrest us. They held their guns out and said we were spies. All of this crazy stuff. And they said, 'Why would anyone want to go see the Pygmies? They're half-man, half-animal.'"
He returned from his two-week stay in Congo and started thinking about ways of helping the Congo's Pygmies. With the help of Shalom University, he then devised a long-term plan – one that involved buying land for the Pygmies and teaching them how to cultivate their own food crops.
With his and some others' help, they have now acquired 2,470 acres and have also dug up several wells for clean drinking water. These acts of kindness of a man who previously beat up men for a living have endeared him to the Congolese Pygmies, who in return, have named him Efeosa Mbuti MangBo, meaning "the man who loves us."
"Without a doubt, I'm a better man for this," Wren said. "I've seen up close what is important in life. Before, living the life of my dreams I'd had as a 13-year-old, being a UFC fighter, is what was important to me. That didn't fulfill me and I spiraled downward and crashed and burned. Having these experiences, I see more clearly how precious life is, how precious every human life is.
"There are bigger things to life than having my name known as a fighter. I feel like the addictions, the depression, all that stuff, I'm not naïve enough to say I'm above it. But I will say I have greater things to live for and to focus and pursue. I'm not doing this to help myself, but I see as I help others, it comes back to help me. So I feel like I'm a much better man now than I was when I went there for the first time."