Justin Wren re-evaluated his life less than two years ago from a Ugandan hospital bed, where he clung to life with severe cases of malaria and blackwater fever.
With his body temperature fluctuating wildly, he had lost 33 pounds in five days, draining the strength from a burly, blond-bearded mixed martial artist who left his sport in search of something bigger. Wren realizes most people with any self-preservation instinct would have left Africa to recover.
But he says he first traveled to the Congo after it appeared to him in a vision, providing a destination and a focus to a life consumed by drug abuse and self-loathing. The heavyweight wrestler couldn’t abandon the pygmy tribes that became his adopted family.
After a month of recovery, he bought a truck and drove it back.
“You’re going to have to take me out, because that’s the fighter I am,” Wren said. “That’s what this mission is about. That’s why I went to the Congo. When I say that’s my family, I literally mean it. It’s not a shallow thing to me. It’s not to tug on anyone’s heart. That’s my heart. That’s my family.”
Wren returns to MMA after a five-year absence Friday night, taking on Josh Burns in Temecula, California.
The Bellator 141 cage at the Pechanga Resort and Casino is a long way from eastern Congo, which has been Wren’s home for long stretches of the past half-decade. A humanitarian mission to the Mbuti pygmy groups turned into an urgent cause for Wren, who will donate his MMA win bonuses and other income streams to the charitable organization with which he is digging water wells, starting farms and buying land.
He wants to resurrect his fighting career, but a championship belt is no longer his ultimate goal.
“I’m in it for a lot more than me now,” Wren said. “I put a world of pressure on myself even when it was just for me, and now it’s for them.”
After getting into MMA as a teenage wrestler in his native Texas, Wren fought on “The Ultimate Fighter,” competing alongside current UFC regulars Roy Nelson and Matt Mitrione on the long-running reality show. He was 10-2 in a solid MMA career, but injuries and depression led him to dependence on oxycodone, marijuana, cocaine and partying.
“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.”
After getting sober, Wren accepted an offer to travel with a religious group. He was stunned when he immediately felt at home in eastern Congo — even though he contracted several illnesses in addition to that malaria bout in November 2013, when he needed an emergency flight to medical care in Uganda on Thanksgiving Day.
Wren was ready to quit MMA while he spent a full year in the Congo. He made initial plans to move permanently with his then-girlfriend, Emily, who had never been on a camping trip before Wren plunked her down in Africa.
But as his return to the U.S. grew closer last year, the fighting itch returned. He also acknowledged the enormous opportunity he held in his powerful hands: MMA is a platform to reach untold millions with the pygmies’ story.
“I couldn’t promise them clean water or a farm or a farming project,” Wren said. “But I knew that the fighting community would listen to me, or at least I could talk. This story is worth being told, and these people are worth fighting for.”
After getting married last November, Wren returned to MMA training and finished writing a book, “Fight for the Forgotten,” due out next month. But he couldn’t stay away from the Congo: He returned from his most recent trip less than three months ago.
During the three-week stop, he celebrated the drilling of his team’s 20th water well, observed a nascent farming project in three villages and checked in with his group’s 17 employees. He has merged his nonprofit organization into a larger organization, water4.org.
“I have to learn to balance the two cultures, because I immerse myself completely in theirs, and then I come back here and it’s like complete culture shock,” Wren said while sitting on an outdoor terrace at a posh Century City hotel.
Wren’s eyes dart to the potted palms in the corner, and a laugh emerges from his still-thick beard: “I could build a pretty sweet hut out of these leaves. I could sleep out here.”