Bellator 149: "Shamrock vs. Gracie 3" comes to Toyota Center in Houston, Texas, this Friday night (Feb. 19, 2016). The main event is an Openweight fight between Ken Shamrock and Royce Gracie for the third (and likely final) time, while the co-featured fight of the night pits Heavyweight sluggers Kimbo Slice and Dada 5000 opposite each other.
However, before the main card begins on Spike TV, the "Prelims" bouts on Spike.com will be headlined by "Big Pygmy" Justin Wren (11-2) as the Heavyweight returns for his second Bellator fight against Juan Torres (3-3).
Wren's story is as intriguing as the bout itself. Wren competed The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 10 and was ultimately cut after losing a split decision to Jon Madsen at TUF 10 Finale. He bounced around the minor leagues throughout 2010 until he decided to leave behind the fighting life to become a Christian missionary.
Five years later, Wren made a successful return at Bellator 141, blowing out Josh Burns in a one-sided war, earning a return bout at Bellator 149 in Houston this weekend. Wren talks about that fight and his "Fight for the Forgotten" in the Congo in a recent interview with MMA Mania.
Wren had to fight to even have his fight with Burns as forces swirled around him that were out of his control.
"I had 12 weeks blocked off so that I could dedicate to fight camp after the five years off, but Congo corruption brought me back to the Congo for three weeks with a visa issue. They tried to steal my five-year visa from me for a $3,000 bribe. I didn't have my passport for two full weeks while I was in the country. Luckily, I didn't have to pay that bribe -- just a $50 fee. It took three weeks away from training."
Wren's clinch work in the second round didn't suggest five years off or a training camp that was cut short. He still believes that wasn't good enough for Bellator.
"I was really disappointed in my performance. As a competitor I'm disappointed, as a humanitarian and everything I'm trying to accomplish, two thumbs up -- more than that it was amazing. As a competitor I should go out there and finish my guys, and so that's what I hope I do with Juan Torres."
Even though Torres has a 3-3 record coming in and has lost two of his last three fights, Wren is not looking past his opponent or his credentials.
"I know Torres was a D-1 or a D-2 football player, he's an athletic guy, a big boy -- that's for sure. He looks a lot like Josh Burns did, and I was hoping to fight a different body type than that. I know he's got a wrestling background of sorts, he takes guys down with double legs. He's a southpaw, he leads people into his left hand, I think it's because people don't understand how to fight a southpaw. Luckily training up here at Grudge I get a lot of looks at a gym that has trained world champions in both MMA and boxing."
From a young age Wren dreamed of being a professional fighter, but when he achieved his dream he realized he had paid an awful price to succeed.
"I was getting paid to do what I love for a living. It was the dream I had chosen as a 13-year-old child, so my childhood dream had actually become a reality. I was walking through Costco and the people in the deli market doing the rotisserie chickens wanted to come take pictures with me and stuff because they watched The Ultimate Fighter. The childhood dream was a reality -- but I was a full blown addict."
Wren wasn't just masking the pain of training and fighting -- he was dealing with a deeper pain that wouldn't go away.
"I had dealt with clinical depression at 13 years old. I grew up getting bullied, mom took me to see a doctor, and he said I was depressed. I dealt with that for 10 full years, then addiction for nearly six. When I decided to step away from the sport it was mainly just to get my life right -- and for me to find my faith and deepen my roots in it."
For Wren, that meant more than paying lip service to God at church. He decided to make a difference for the pygmy people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but quickly realized he had a whole new fight on his hands.
"(When I first) got there, I said, 'The problem's too big and I'm too small,' and I left with my head down and my tail tucked between my legs and didn't know what I could do. I was just crushed from seeing all the poverty and just how it wreaked havoc on people. It was overwhelming. The second time I went the end of the trip was even worse. I had a 1.5-year-old die in my hands. The nurses told his mom, 'You're too dirty to come in here.' The one shot to cure him was $3, the whole village came up with $3.50, yet when I started burying him the casket I bought was $38. It was so backward, and it messed with me."
Wren never gave up on his mission, and over time it dawned on him that fighting for a cause was his true fight.
"One of the themes that Loretta (Hunt) discovered as the theme of my life while we were writing the book was, 'Hey you used to get bullied -- now you stand up for people that get bullied.' And yeah I used to fight against people, but now I fight for people. I just believe that's in my DNA, in my make up. I love fighting. It's the purest form of competition, it's that human chess match, it's the ultimate individual sport."
Ultimately, Wren realized he could win a fight in the cage individually, but he needed a bigger team outside the cage to fight for the pygmies.
"The whole time I was building a foundation and setting up 'Fight For the Forgotten,' the whole point of it was, this can't be dependent on me. If it's dependent on the Westerner who's not from here, what happens when he moves away? Guys, what happens if I die? So we had to build something that would outlive me, climb higher than I could ever climb, and go farther than I could ever go. I'm the spark plug, but they're the engine. I'm not the hero, but they're my heroes. I might be a fighter, but they're better fighters than I've ever been. They're in the trenches every day."
Wren is about to get back in the trenches himself with Torres. And he knows he's got a real test ahead.
"Juan's a Houston boy, getting to represent Houston, I know he's gonna love that. He's looking at me as the stepping stone, and I can't take that lightly at all. I've got so much riding on this, a lot more than he does, but he wants to be the hometown boy that derails me and makes a name for himself so he can be a Bellator fighter."
Ultimately, Wren feels the more he can achieve in Bellator, the more it helps his "Fight For the Forgotten," and he's willing to take it all the way to the top.
"I'm serious about this. I'm not taking it lightly, and I want to run with it as far as I can, which is to that Bellator belt. If I can do that, I think there would be a story worth telling -- a guy of championship caliber who gives away every bonus and then goes and sees it done. I'm not doing it for that, I'm doing it for them, but hopefully it can inspire the people here and it can be a good thing all the way around."
Wren is a man on a mission -- literally -- and his next stop is Bellator 149 at Toyota Center this Friday night.
Complete audio of our interview is below and complete Bellator MMA coverage can be found right here on fight night.