2018 MMA Fighter of the Year: Justin Wren

At first glance, it might seem odd for Black­Belt to give its MMA Fighter of the Year award to some­one who hasn’t fought in a cage all year. But in a big­ger fight — out­side the cage — Justin Wren has proved him­self a con­sis­tent win­ner.

Black Belt - - FIGHTBOOK - BY MARK JA­COBS

Wren hasn’t com­peted in MMA since a spec­tac­u­lar vic­tory over Ro­man Piz­zo­lato in 2017 be­cause of a tear in his shoul­der that re­quired surgery. But that hasn’t stopped him from con­tin­u­ing to fight to save the lives of thou­sands of Mbuti Pyg­mies in the Congo and to bring clean drink­ing wa­ter to im­pov­er­ished peo­ple around the world.

THAT’S NOT TO SAY Wren can’t get it on in the cage, as well. Just ask some of the op­po­nents he’s punched, choked and slammed into obliv­ion.

The heavy­weight got started in wrestling as a young­ster af­ter see­ing videos of the first UFC events. Hav­ing been pushed around and picked on re­lent­lessly as a child, he says his ini­tial thought on see­ing those early MMA stars was, I bet those guys

don’t get bul­lied. That mo­ti­vated him to turn his child­hood tor­ment into a drive to ex­cel on the wrestling mats, where he ended up earn­ing a na­tional high-school cham­pi­onship and a na­tional ju­nior Greco-Ro­man wrestling ti­tle.

How­ever, a se­vere arm in­jury sus­tained af­ter high school cur­tailed his wrestling ca­reer and led to a grow­ing de­pen­dence on painkillers.

BE­FORE HE COULD re­turn to wrestling in col­lege, Wren was side­tracked by the op­por­tu­nity to com­pete in a lo­cal MMA show. He won and kept on win­ning. He for­got about col­lege when he was cho­sen to par­tic­i­pate in Sea­son 10 of The

Ul­ti­mate Fighter. It was the se­ries’ high­est-rated sea­son at that time. Au­di­ences got to watch the 22-yearold Wren get thrown in with a group of vet­eran heavy­weights, all older and more ex­pe­ri­enced than he was. Nev­er­the­less, he stood out not just for his fight­ing but also for his pleas­ant, nice-guy de­meanor.

Af­ter Wren lost a close de­ci­sion to the show’s even­tual win­ner Roy Nel­son, big things were pre­dicted for him by many pun­dits, in­clud­ing UFC head Dana White.

But Wren’s re­liance on painkillers, along with a grow­ing de­pen­dency on al­co­hol and other drugs he took to stave off lin­ger­ing feel­ings of in­se­cu­rity, soon spi­raled out of con­trol, and he was forced to quit the sport. “My child­hood dream had turned into a night­mare,” he re­calls.

For­tu­nately, ac­quain­tances in­volved in a Chris­tian out­reach group con­vinced Wren to en­ter a re­hab pro­gram. Af­ter fi­nally get­ting clean, he had an episode that he de­scribes as “ex­pe­ri­enc­ing God’s love.” Feel­ing it was his pur­pose in life to help oth­ers, he joined a mis­sion­ary group and ended up in the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of the Congo, one of the poor­est, most-dan­ger­ous coun­tries on earth.

IN THE CONGO, Wren be­friended the Mbuti Pyg­mies, a diminu­tive race of peo­ple who have been mur­dered and en­slaved by neigh­bor­ing tribes. Wren de­cided to move to the Congo and live for a year in the rainforest with the Mbuti to bet­ter un­der­stand them and fig­ure out how he could aid them.

Once there, the Amer­i­can con­tracted malaria and nearly died, but he never let that dis­cour­age him from con­tin­u­ing his fight to save the Mbuti. Want­ing to bring them clean drink­ing wa­ter, he even­tu­ally con­nected with an or­ga­ni­za­tion called Water4, which helps drill wells and trains oth­ers to do the same around the globe in the bat­tle to bring ev­ery­one clean wa­ter.

When he re­turned to the United States af­ter his year in the Congo, Wren was wracked by a de­sire to do more for the Pyg­mies, who had es­sen­tially adopted him as one of their own. The man who would come to be known as “The Big Pygmy” de­cided to use the ready-made plat- form he had in the MMA world to bring at­ten­tion to the plight of the Mbuti and raise money to aid them. Sign­ing with the Bel­la­tor pro­mo­tion, he went 3-0, work­ing the rust off with each match.

SHOUL­DER SURGERY tem­po­rar­ily put his come­back on hold, but Wren man­aged to keep him­self busy by con­tin­u­ing his work abroad while prop­a­gat­ing his anti-bul­ly­ing mes­sage at home. He re­cently part­nered with Cen­tury Mar­tial Arts to at­tain the joint goal of drilling 100 wa­ter wells in Africa and em­pow­er­ing 100 mar­tial arts schools with anti-bul­ly­ing pro­grams.

He also kept busy jour­ney­ing to Africa with a group of play­ers from the Na­tional Foot­ball League to climb Mount Kil­i­man­jaro for the pur­pose of bring­ing ad­di­tional at­ten­tion to the world wa­ter cri­sis. Al­though Wren said hik­ing for 20 straight hours on the last day of the climb was more pun­ish­ing than any MMA fight he’s ever done, he none­the­less reached the sum­mit, and the group achieved its mone­tary goals, rais­ing enough money to drill wells in sev­eral African vil­lages.

But don’t think Wren is done with MMA fight­ing just yet. Once he got to the top of Kil­i­man­jaro, he pulled out a new Bel­la­tor con­tract and signed it there on the high­est peak in Africa. Re­gard­less of how his up­com­ing fights go, af­ter ev­ery­thing he’s al­ready done in life, he’s def­i­nitely the big­gest suc­cess story in MMA and a wor­thy re­cip­i­ent of

Black Belt’s MMA Fighter of the Year award.

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