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Justin Wren has returned from the Congo, but his fight for the Pygmies has just begun

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Justin Wren

LOS ANGELES -- Justin Wren stroked his prodigious beard, scratched the dry, red skin on his arm and squinted.

"It's kind of crazy we're here," he said. "All that green."

The ivy-covered coffee shop patio about two miles from the campus of UCLA brought Wren back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And, more specifically, the vision he had that led him to the African nation in the first place.

Four years ago, Wren was an MMA fighter struggling with addiction and depression, looking for something else of value in his life. During a spiritual retreat, he found it even if he didn't know where it was.

"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. "And then when I got in, everything shifted and changed. Because everyone there was hurting."

The scene didn't just exist in the recesses of Wren's mind. When Wren told the retreat leader, Caleb Bislow, about his vision, Bislow knew the exact place he was talking about: eastern Congo, one of the most dangerous places on Earth. It was also the location Bislow was taking a group of missionaries in the coming weeks.

When Wren arrived in the Congo, he was almost certain it was the place and people -- the enslaved, hunted Pygmies -- he saw in his dream. One of the ethnic group's leaders told him he referred to the Pygmies as "the forgotten people" and that sealed it.

"When they told me 'forgotten,' I was like, 'This thing came true,'" Wren said.

Wren knows the whole thing -- visions and dreams of faraway forests -- sounds kooky. It doesn't really matter to him, though, because it has led to what has become his life's work.

Wren will return to MMA on Friday night against Josh Burns at Bellator 141 for the first time in five years. But he's not doing it for himself as a means of income. He's fighting for them. Fighting for The Forgotten.

"My goals in MMA would be, I want to be the Bellator champ, but I would say that my heart isn't wrapped up in that," Wren said. "That's not my identity and purpose. My purpose is to be their voice."

The Pygmies are an ethnic group indigenous to Africa. In the Congo, they are preyed upon like animals by armed rebels, who kill them, rape their women and eat them. Wren, 28, has spent the better part of the last four years helping them buy back land, teaching them how to earn money for their families and building them water wells for drinking and bathing.

At one point, Wren was in the Congo for one whole year. On seven other occasions, he returned for a month at a time. His reason for coming back to MMA is to draw attention to the plight of the Pygmies, so others will help, too.

Wren plans on giving all of his Bellator win bonuses to the group of people he calls his family. For the fight against Burns, Wren said he's going to give all of his sponsorship money to the Pygmies, too. And 33 percent of the proceeds from Wren's upcoming book, "Fight for the Forgotten" written with MMA journalist Loretta Hunt, will also go to the Pygmies.

"I can't tell people to give if I'm not giving everything I can," Wren said. "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."

Wren (10-2) was a stud wrestler in high school, coached by former Olympic gold medalist Kenny Monday. He excelled in Greco Roman, which earned him a scholarship to the U.S. Olympic Education Center at Northern Michigan University.

While there, Wren badly injured his right elbow and needed surgery. That event changed the course of his life. Not only did it push him into mixed martial arts, but it also began his addiction to pain pills. Somehow, Wren hid his addiction while training as an MMA fighter for years.

Wren was dominant on the regional circuit and earned a spot alongside the likes of Kimbo Slice, Roy Nelson and Matt Mitrione on The Ultimate Fighter 10: The Heavyweights in 2009. Wren, who made the quarterfinals before losing to Nelson by majority decision, said he snuck oxycontin into the house via a prescription pill bottle marked with another drug.

Wren lost at The Ultimate Fighter 10 Finale by split decision to fellow castmate Jon Madsen. He said if he was drug tested he would have tested positive for oxycontin and marijuana. Wren was using, even during fight week.

After the Madsen loss, the UFC didn't bring Wren back. He went back on the regional scene and won three straight in dominant fashion, all the while spiraling out of control with his addiction. Wren said a regular morning for him included a healthy breakfast of steel-cut oats, agave nectar, a protein shake and egg whites -- all washed down with pain pills, hard liquor and pot.

Former UFC fighter Josh Copeland, Wren's roommate at the time, saw his best friend slowly deteriorate, missing multiple practices at Grudge Training Center in Colorado and going missing. Wren said there are six weeks of his life that he doesn't remember at all. He said he was going on training trips, but really going into the mountains to do drugs and drink.

At one point, his mother had to break into his home, because she had not heard from him in weeks. Eventually, Grudge coach Trevor Wittman kicked him off the team.

"It literally came to a point where I told him I'm not lying for you anymore," Copeland said. "It's almost like I was helping him. People would ask, 'Where's Justin?' [I'd say], 'Oh, he's not feeling good.' I told him, 'I'm tired of lying for you.'"

Wren took a slow turn to spirituality, which led him to The Experience, a 55-day discipleship that took him on missionary places to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He was shocked by some of the things he saw in Haiti, like people wading past "snow drifts" of garbage to bathe, children eating at the city dump and kids sniffing glue just so they can go to sleep at night.

"It messed me up," Wren said.

Soon after, he had the visions and ended up in the Congo. There, he has made a real difference, building a team of water well drillers and buying back substantial land where the Pygmies can live for a generation.

Being there has not always been easy. Wren contracted malaria in November 2013 and it devolved into blackwater fever, which can be fatal. He was misdiagnosed four times in the Congo and needed a medevac airship to transport him to a hospital in neighboring Uganda for treatment.

At that time, he said 65-70 percent of his blood was parasites and he couldn't hold down any food. His body temperature rose to 104 degrees and then sank down to 96 in a matter of minutes. Wren didn't know if he would make it.

"In that time, you literally feel like your body is overheating and on fire until all of a sudden it's like you're in one of those cryo machines," he said.

Wren recovered in Uganda and when he was back to full health he purchased a truck and drove it 16 hours back to the Pygmies. That truck is now used for water-well drilling. Wren went back then and he plans on going back for the rest of his life.

"I would love to fight two or three times a year and then take off and go to Congo and be there for two or three weeks after every fight," Wren said. "That's going to be my vacation."

Wren said the idea for coming back to MMA actually came from his wife, Emily, who he met after his first trip to the Congo. Emily said he could use MMA as a way to open people's eyes to his cause.

"What if they can help each other and complement each other?" Emily told him.

Wren said his training camp at Team Takedown (with his old coach Monday) and Grudge (Wittman let him back) were tough after such a long layoff. But he said he is healthy and in good shape for Burns.

Bellator president Scott Coker met with Wren three times over the last few years while he was in California writing the book with Hunt. Coker has been a big supporter of Wren's cause and that went toward his decision to choose Bellator. UFC color commentator Joe Rogan has also donated the money for two water wells and UFC fighter Nate Marquardt gave a portion of his Performance of the Night bonus last year.

"It's night and day from who he was to who he is now -- from living for himself to living for something greater," Copeland said.

There have been countless others who have given, both in money and support. Wren is hoping for more. He'll be in the U.S. in the weeks immediately following the fight to promote the book, which comes out Sept. 15.

After that, though, Wren plans on going back to the Congo in October or November. MMA will just be a part-time gig, the vehicle for Wren's more important work.

"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 about Wren's Fight for the Forgotten or to donate, visit FightForTheForgotten.org.