Growing up, I faced pretty severe bullying. Maybe it’s because I was chubbier and had pimples on my face. Maybe I was too nice and let other kids walk over me. At 13, I was diagnosed with clinical depression, and I battled suicidal thoughts.
Luckily, I had a loving home and my parents did everything they could to help me improve my self-esteem. They encouraged me to get involved in athletics. And that’s what started me on the trajectory to professional cage fighting.
I’ve loved the sport of wrestling since the moment I stepped onto the mat. It took my focus off my struggles. I didn’t start off as a great wrestler. In fact, I was terrible. But a coach saw something in me and he never gave up. Eventually I became one of the best and won multiple state and national championships.
After graduation, I moved to the Olympic Training Center to pursue my dream of wrestling in the Olympics. In a match with a world champion, I ended up in a bad position. Rather than give him the point, I let him gut-wrench me against the mat, twisting my arm the wrong way. In a freak accident, my arm snapped like a twig.
I was in terrible pain from my neck down to my hand. My elbow was broken and dislocated. I’d torn the ulnar collateral ligament. There was nerve damage. And my insurance company didn’t want to pay for my surgery.
In the meantime, I took painkillers, and I was hooked immediately. The drugs dulled not only my physical pain, but also the emotional pain and depression that had tormented me since elementary school. I would go through a month’s supply of Oxycontin in a week. Eventually, I had three doctors, in three different states, prescribing me narcotics in rotation; none of them knew about the others.
My wrestling career was in limbo, but the drive to fight remained. When a friend of mine was injured, I took his spot in a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fight. Wrestlers often perform well in MMA, and I was no exception. After my first win, I caught the fighting bug.
As my popularity in the MMA community grew, I got sucked into the fighting lifestyle, which can be dangerous. Fans wanted me to sign autographs and take pictures. And everyone wanted to party. As my career skyrocketed, so did my addictions. Before long, I’d added cocaine and alcohol to my already out-of-control narcotics addiction.
After my record reached 9–1, I appeared on Spike’s reality series The Ultimate Fighter. While I didn’t win, it catapulted my career, and before long I landed an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) contract. I was the youngest heavyweight at the highest level. I split my time between fighting, training, and doing drugs. To this day, I am missing memories of entire weeks due to drug binges.
My life hit rock bottom when I was kicked off one of the world’s best fight teams for drug use. My childhood dream had turned into a living nightmare. But when everyone else had written me off as beyond redemption, one friend, Jeff, refused to walk away. He called me several times a day, inviting me to a Christian men’s retreat. He promised to train with me in the mornings, as long as I would attend the sessions in the afternoons. I was expecting a bunch of “kumbaya moments” around a campfire, but the men were raw and real about their struggles. They weren’t wimpy men like I thought, but they had a peace I envied. After a few days at the retreat, I knew I needed what they had, and I prayed:
God, I’m a drunk and drug addict. I’m a liar and a cheater. I’m many things I’ve wanted to be, and I’m everything I never wanted to be. God, I’ve hurt everybody. I don’t want to hurt anybody anymore. I don’t want to hurt. I desperately need you in my life.
As I prayed, I felt God lift me up. It felt like something finally released me. I was free. All the emotional chains of depression, all the bondage, just broke and fell away. At the same time, I felt God’s arms envelop me, the way a father bear-hugs his sons.
Instantly, things began changing. I threw the rest of my drugs in the campfire. It’s remarkable, because so many people resolve to quit drugs only to fall back into old habits, but God took the desire away from me, and I’ve never wanted to return to the life I had before.
After Jesus helped me overcome my depression and addiction, my dreams for my life changed. I wanted more than MMA fame; I wanted to serve God however I could. I started volunteering at local ministries and prisons, sharing my story with anyone who would listen.
I also knew I needed a break from MMA. Even though I still loved the sport, the temptations were too great. But without fighting, I didn’t know what to do with my life. In desperation, I prayed:
God, I’m yours. Is there anything you want me to do? I desire to do your will, not mine.
That’s when a strange vision flooded my head. I watched myself weaving through the jungle. Among the forest’s white noise, I heard the faint sound of lively music, unlike anything I’d heard before. As I stepped into a clearing, I saw 150 people, living in a cluster of twig-and-leaf huts.
I took a step forward, and the vision changed. I was bombarded by flash-fast images of malnourished children and starving old men. I saw a man dying from a disease eating him alive. For some reason, I could tell these people were oppressed and outcasts.
I sobbed so uncontrollably that I left a puddle of tears on my Bible. I wondered if I was crazy, but I knew I couldn’t have imagined what I saw on my own. I didn’t know who these people were, but I knew I had to help them. Turning suddenly to Isaiah 58, my eyes locked onto verses 6–12, about God’s heart for the poor and oppressed. The passage started a fire in my heart.
I shared my vision with my mentor, Caleb, and he immediately knew I was describing a Mbuti (or Pygmy) tribe in the Congo. He told me he was leading a group there in a month with his high-risk missions ministry, Unusual Soldiers, and he encouraged me to go with him. Our goal on this trip would be to find the most remote Mbuti villages in the jungle, form relationships with them, and learn more about their needs.
I saw firsthand that circumstances there were graver than I had seen in my vision. And after several months back home, I still could not shake my burden. Caleb connected me with Shalom University, a Congolese Christian school dedicated to serving the Pygmies. I knew I couldn’t help them unless I understood them first, so I lived with them for a year. I slept in a twig-and-leaf hut, ate their food, and suffered from the same diseases. One bout with malaria nearly killed me. But no matter how tough things got, I felt more at home than I ever had in the gym.
I was soon adopted into the Pygmy tribe and given a new name: Eféosa Mbuti MangBO. “Mbuti MangBO” means “The Big Pygmy,” which is appropriate, since at six foot three I tower over the average (four-foot-seven) Pygmy man. “Eféosa” means “The Man Who Loves Us.”
Recently, after a five-year hiatus, I returned to the MMA cage with the goal of raising money for Fight for the Forgotten, the organization I founded to help serve the Pygmies. The drive to fight is still there, but I’m no longer fighting my inner demons. I’m fighting to fulfill God’s call on my life.
Justin Wren is the author of Fight for the Forgotten: How a Mixed Martial Artist Stopped Fighting for Himself and Started Fighting for Others (Howard Books).