Five years after walking away from a promising career in the cage, Mixed Martial Artist (MMA) Justin Wren will fight for the first time since his 2010 bout against Josh Robertson. He will step back into the modern-day gladiatorial arena to face Josh Burns at Bellator 141, at the Pechanga Resort and Casino in California.
At the time of his last fight, Wren's life had already spiralled out of control triggered by a career-threatening injury some years earlier. He was engulfed by depression, began to take oxycodone to help relieve the pain and turned to marijuana and then cocaine. He also drank heavily.
"I would say that I've always loved the sport, like passionately loved the sport," Wren said. "But I would say that I hated who I had become in the sport."
A dream would lead Wren to one of the most dangerous, yet beautiful places on earth where he would find the people who he describe as his family. The destination? Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in the heart of Africa, devastated by years of war and in extreme poverty despite its huge natural riches.
"I was walking down a small path and there was green on every side of me and I heard drumming and when I got closer I heard this beautiful singing," Wren said of his vision. "And then when I got in, everything shifted and changed. Because everyone there was hurting." The people he dreamt of were the pygmies of eastern DRC and after confiding in a friend, he was assured that the place was real.
After becoming sober, he accepted an invitation to travel with a religious group and he instantly felt at home in the lush, green expanses of eastern DRC, despite contracting life-threatening illnesses. He was transferred to Uganda to receive urgent treatment, but soon returned to the DRC with a truck to help relieve the plight of the people he identifies as his family. Pygmies - jungle people of unusually short stature - are an oppressed in the country, enslaved, raped, eaten and the victims of genocide.
After a year there of helping the pygmies secure clean water and purchase 2,470 acres of land to live on, the people and the place had captured his heart and Wren was ready to walk away from MMA.
"I didn't know if I was ever going to come back [to the cage]," Wren told ESPN.com. "I'm passionate about fighting – I want to be the heavyweight champion in Bellator – but the work I had to get done there is more important. I had to build a team that could acquire land legally – find agriculturists who could start farming that land. It's now to a point where I believe I can fan the flames from a distance and add fuel to the fire through the publicity that MMA brings."
And as the chance to tell the untold story of his family dawned on Wren, he decided to use the opportunity to do just that. The self-styled "Big Pygmy" has said he will donate all of his Bellator win bonuses and sponsorship money from the fight on August 29 against Burns to his Congolese people.
"I can't tell people to give if I'm not giving everything I can," Wren told mmafighting.com. "I know I'm giving my time and my health, but I don't want to be one of those dudes to give to their cause and not give it everything I've got."
He will give an additional 33 percent of the proceeds from his book, "Fight for the Forgotten" to the pygmies. Above all, his work has given the pygmies their dignity and sense of worth back.
"My life-long goal and dream and plans are to fight for the forgotten," Wren said. "That's life long. That will never fade."
For more information on Wren's efforts in the DRC, visit http://www.water4.org/fightfortheforgotten
For more information on Bellator, visit http://bellator.spike.com/