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.
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.