How an MMA fighter found salvation among the Pygmies

Pain is a fighter's constant companion. Few men alive are as intimately acquainted with the pain that is omnipresent in combat sports as much as Justin Wren.

Not long after he was out of high school, the 18-year-old Wren was living at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colo., when he suffered an injury that dramatically changed the course of his life.

Justin Wren poses with some Pygmy children. (Special to Yahoo Sports)
Justin Wren poses with some Pygmy children. (Special to Yahoo Sports)

First, it led him on a downward spiral toward addiction and depression. He became, he says almost casually, "a depressed, drunk, drug addict."

"Toward the end of my fight career, right around 'Ultimate Fighter' time, right after that, I was basically hiding a drug addiction," said Wren, who was coached by former light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans on Season 10 of the UFC's reality series in 2009. "It was mainly to opiates, narcotics and pain pills, but I was also doing cocaine a lot and medical marijuana."

It's best to know where Wren has been to better understand where he is in his life today as he prepares to make a comeback.

Wren is now a hero to thousands of Pygmies from the Congo, who are known as either "The Forest People" or, as they call themselves, "The Forgotten People."

How he got to this stage, where he’s helped these largely helpless tribes of people buy land, find clean water and learn to grow their own food, tracks back to an agonizingly painful elbow injury he suffered in 2005.

All Wren thought of during his time at Bishop Lynch High School in Dallas was fighting.

After winning two national high school championships, Wren planned to wrestle at Iowa State, where he would have been coached by the legendary Cael Sanderson. But before he ever made it to Ames, he suffered a gruesome injury in December 2005 during a match with two-time Olympian Dremiel Byers at the Olympic training center.

"I got caught in a funky position and I was only down a point and I really didn't want to give up another one," Wren said. "So in a scramble, I really got caught in a bad position. I didn't want to be down two more points, so I kept fighting until my arm snapped.

"If you put your arm kind of behind your back to the point where your forearm is on your lower back, but just the other way. It was like putting your hand on your back with your hand facing the sky and kept cranking it back the other way until it snapped."

He dislocated his elbow, tore the ulnar collateral ligament and broke several bones. Doctors told him there was a 35 percent chance he wouldn't be able to compete again.

That sent him into a depression. He was facing a surgery in which a tendon from his hamstring would be taken and inserted into his elbow and a nerve in his elbow would be moved.

Justin Wren stands with a Pygmy tribal chief. (Special to Yahoo Sports)
Justin Wren stands with a Pygmy tribal chief. (Special to Yahoo Sports)

The pain, he said, was immense.

"The definition of excruciating to me is that moment [the injury occurred]," Wren said. "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."

With the help of friends and family, he finally fought his way out of the addiction and the aftermath of the injury.

He is, he said, a man of faith, and by 2011 had come to a crossroads in his life. He had an offer to fight in a promotion called Dream, and it was appealing. But he wasn't sure if he should accept.

He said he prayed, asking God to guide him. And then he had a vision, which he sheepishly said makes him sound crazy.

"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."

He was almost embarrassed by the dream and didn't mention it to anyone for several days. About four days later, he told his friend, Caleb, about it.

And Caleb instantly recognized Wren's dream.

"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.'"

Wren and his friend made the decision to go to the Congo to see things for themselves. He flew from Omaha, Neb., to Chicago and then caught a non-stop to Amsterdam. In Amsterdam, he caught a plane that took him to Entebbe, Uganda. And from there, he got on a private plane that brought him into the Congo.

When he arrived for his two-week visit in August 2011, he saw that his dream had come to life. There are an estimated 500,000 Pygmies in the Congo who live in squalor with few benefits of the modern world.

Wren's heart went out to them immediately, and he knew that somehow, some way, he would help. Of course, it was impossible at the moment to know just how, and his plans were made more difficult because his translators were corrupt.

Justin Wren sits in front of a traditional hut. (Special to Yahoo Sports)
Justin Wren sits in front of a traditional hut. (Special to Yahoo Sports)

"They were just thieves and con artists," Wren said of the translators. " … Every official we came across, whether military or police-wise or whatever, they were just corrupt. 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.' "

That, of course, just inspired Wren even more. The Pygmies were enslaved by a group of people known as the Mokpala, or non-Pygmies. They'd steal the Pygmies' land and commit other atrocities against them.

When Wren returned, he partnered with Shalom University in Congo to hatch a plan. His goals were to buy them their own land, then help them get clean water and then to develop their own food.

His heart was nearly broken when a local hospital refused to treat a desperately ill 18-month-old Pygmy child named Andibo.

"I held him and when I slid my hand under his head, blood came out of his ears," Wren said. "I hated so much they wouldn't help him. To see this young boy die because he didn't have clean water to drink is something I'll never forget."

Andibo's mother brought a chicken, two dozen eggs and a 120-pound bag of charcoal to the hospital in hopes of convincing the doctors to care for her son. They refused.

His second trip was more than a month long. Then, he returned in October 2013 and stayed for a year. He helped them purchase 2,470 acres of land. He personally helped dig 13 wells. Now the total is up to 16.

He helped them plant trees around the border of the land and they began several farming projects.

Wren, who has a long blonde beard, is 6 feet 3 inches, 270 pounds. The Pygmy people, who had initially been wary of him, soon adopted him as one of their own. He said he's never seen a member of one of the many tribes weigh more than 100 pounds, and the tallest are around 4-foot-7.

They named him Efeosa Mbuti MangBo. Efeosa means "the man who loves us," while Mbuti MangBo means "the big Pygmy."

A Pygmy tribeswoman uses a well that Justin Wren helped provide. (Special to Yahoo Sports)
A Pygmy tribeswoman uses a well that Justin Wren helped provide. (Special to Yahoo Sports)

Wren left the Congo as a dramatically changed man. He created a foundation, "Fight for the Forgotten," and is writing a book by that name that will be published by Howard Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, on Sept. 15.

He plans to fight again and said any bonus money he earns will be 100 percent donated to the Pygmy tribes with whom he's fallen in love.

"Without a doubt, I'm a better man for this," he 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."