There are plenty of pro athletes who are happy to cash in on their talents, endorse causes that improve their public image, and pose with disenfranchised people for a photo op. And then there’s Justin Wren, a successful, American-born MMA fighter who was so rankled by the plight of Africa’s Pygmy tribes that he moved to the rainforest to help them.
Wren sat down with Shane Heins, Onnit’s Director of Education, to discuss his humanitarian efforts, struggle with substance abuse, and return to the MMA ring in this edition of Onnit Stories—an ongoing series of live interviews with people who have made inspiring life changes with Onnit’s support. See the video of Wren’s interview below, along with an edited transcript of the highlights, time-stamped so you can find those moments in the video, and stay up to date with Onnit Stories by following Onnit’s Instagram TV (IGTV), where a new one appears every other week.
Justin Wren Show Notes
4:10 – The Big Pygmy
The first time I’d heard of Onnit was when I tried Alpha BRAIN® on Joe Rogan’s podcast. I felt the effects right away while I was on the show. Then I went to live in Congo for a year, and Onnit sent me a care package, and it had so much good stuff in it. I think that was probably 2014. I was so nutrient-deprived from living in the rainforest—the dirt was my bed; the fire was my blanket—and Onnit helped get me through it. I lived in a four or five-foot tall hut made of twigs and leaves, and I’m 6’3”.
My name on Instagram, “The Big Pygmy,” comes from my second family—the Congo tribe that adopted me. The name they gave me is Efeosa Mbuti MangBO. The first part, Efeosa, translates to “The man who loves us,” which I cherish. The rest of it, which won’t make sense in their language without the emphasized “BO,” means, “The big Pygmy.”
Last September, I was brought on to the Onnit Pro Team, and I love being a part of it with Juan Leija, Eric Leija, and Coach John Wolf. I always have to surround myself with the best. The missing link in my MMA training was always my strength and conditioning, but now that Onnit is supporting that, I feel ready to make a comeback to MMA this year. I need to be totally optimized to get in there, and a lot of times, strength and conditioning coaches see a fighter and they think they’ve got to beat this guy down with workouts so that he can withstand the stress of a fight. But that can lead to injuries. Poor technique, high load volume, and everything else is a bad idea when I’m already beating myself down with wrestling and jiu-jitsu and boxing. I need to build myself back up. Until I got into Onnit Gym, I didn’t have that watchful eye.
8:45 – On Alpha BRAIN®
Joe Rogan has said he thinks Alpha BRAIN® helps you get into that flow of conversation faster, and I think it helps you stay there longer. I think it’s a pretty good hack for him and his guests. When I take it, I’m more engaged in any podcasts or conversation I’m in. I think it’s a no-brainer to take Alpha BRAIN® before you go into a podcast. When I started my own show, it became part of my routine, my regimen.
11:25 – Facing his Demons with Onnit
There’s a Swahili proverb that the Pygmy people taught me that I think sums up the Onnit community well. “If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.” I’m a pro athlete, and I’ve done that for 15 years, but I get just as much if not more out of training with regular people in the so-called regular classes that Onnit offers in their gym, because they give to me, and I’m able to give to them. It’s a reciprocal thing that means a lot to me. And looking at what we’ve gone through the last couple of years, it’s like, man, we need each other. We all need a community.
I moved here to Austin in November of 2020. I partnered with Onnit a year later, and shortly after that, I needed to go to treatment for substance abuse. I had a big relapse. I’m a founder of a nonprofit, and I was worried that I would lose it. I was worried I’d lose the partnership with Onnit. But I was so encouraged when I realized I could go to the regular classes at Onnit and tell my coaches what was happening. Here I was, a few months into a business relationship with Onnit, and I was telling them about a serious personal problem. I was like, “Oh, man, this is not a good look,” but I came in and I was just loved. I was told, “We’re behind you, man. And if we were only behind you as an athlete, then we’re in the wrong business.” That’s what [Chief Fitness Officer] John Wolf told me, as well as the Chief Marketing Officer, and other company leaders.
They all said, “Go get what you need. Take some time, and come back better than ever.” When Onnit says Total Human Optimization, they mean it. They didn’t just want me as a fighter or a podcaster. They wanted me as a complete human. What was a dark time became a shining bright light, and it showed me how this amazing community operates. Onnit wasn’t behind me because of what I do, but because of who I am—and who they are.
20:50 – Fighting Against People… and For Them
I got into MMA because I grew up getting incredibly, heavily bullied. When I saw mixed martial arts, the first thing I thought was, “These guys don’t get bullied.” Secondly, I loved the human chess match of it. I love the strategy. So I started pursuing MMA at 15 years old.
I started with wrestling, but I wasn’t very good. I lost every match my first year but one. The match I won, I won because the guy basically slipped and I fell on top of him and I beat him by one point. But I had two of the greatest coaches of all time—two Olympic gold medalists—and I eventually won a national championship in high school. I didn’t drink until after I won that title, and then, right away, I could see that I had addictive tendencies.
When you win the national championship trophy, it’s a big cup, and what do you do with a cup? You drink out of it. We started passing that thing around. It was my first time ever drinking, and I think I had about 15 shots. But I went on to be a Greco-Roman wrestling national champion, and then I went to the Olympic training center. Out of there, I got recruited by Iowa State University. Then, the UFC was interested in me, because I was going around helping their fighters with their wrestling.
For my first fight, I was a last-minute replacement for a guy who had gotten a staph infection and couldn’t fight. I took the fight on one day’s notice. I jumped in, threw the guy, and finished the fight. My third fight, I actually started in the audience, watching the fights. I was wearing dress shoes, jeans, and a button-down shirt. A fighter didn’t show up, and they needed a heavyweight to fill in for him. The promoter came out and apologized to the fans. He said, “If there’s anyone here who happens to be a pro fighter, a heavyweight, and wants to… let’s do it.” I was 19, had a fake ID, and was chugging my third beer, so I stood up and raised my hand. I ended up being the co-main event. I had to borrow another fighter’s sweaty jockstrap.
But fighting didn’t necessarily do it for me. I was excited to challenge myself in that way, but what I discovered was that I was fighting against people, and I really wanted to be fighting for people. I wanted to have purpose. So, I found my way to the Congo, living with the Pygmy people. I was 23 years old and had only focused on me, and I started to change that.
The Pygmies have a water crisis, which I didn’t even know about, and it was killing people. I held a baby’s hand when he took his last breath. I thought, “What is going on in the world?” It would have cost one dollar for the pills needed to cure that baby, but the local hospital had denied him treatment. They told his mom, “You’re too dirty to come in here. We won’t waste our medicine on a Pygmy animal.” My heart was crushed.
At one point, the chief pulled me aside and said, “Everyone else calls us the Forest People, but we call ourselves The Forgotten.” That’s where the name for my nonprofit, Fight for the Forgotten, comes from. We’ve had more than 10,000 donors from all 50 states and 60 different countries. Joe Rogan, Aubrey Marcus [co-founder of Onnit], and Onnit have been huge advocates for us.
At first, I thought it was going to be like emptying the ocean with an eyedropper. Would anybody ever notice the impact we’re trying to make? But that’s turned into 80 water wells serving over 30,000 people over 3,000 acres of land. We’ve built 28 homes for people that were kicked out of the rainforest. Now we’re building a health center there, and a school.
I recently had a call with Bellator MMA, and I’m making a comeback to fighting. I hope that helps me rally some support around these projects.
43:40 – How You Can Help Your Community
You are more capable than you know. We limit ourselves. I thought I could never do anything for these Africans; their problems seemed insurmountable. But now we’re making a dent, and it’s well worth it. For the human heart to come alive, you need an adventure to live in and a battle to fight. Just start small.
I’ll give you another Swahili proverb: “If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try to sleep in a closed room with a mosquito.” It’s a little tongue in cheek, but I’ll admit that I’ve gotten my ass kicked worse than anything by a mosquito that weighed less than a gram. I got bitten and it made me sick. A mosquito made me lose 33 pounds in five days. I was vomiting red and green, blood and bile. So if a mosquito can make that much of a difference in my life, how much difference can anyone listening to this make in the lives of others, right?
If I’ve learned anything, it’s that you can’t do everything you want for everyone, but you can do everything for one person. You can make a meaningful impact on someone’s life by doing something small.
I saw a homeless guy one time, and everybody was walking across the street to get away from him. I walked right up to him, and even though I didn’t have any money on me, I said, “What do you need?” He said, “I need a hug.” I said, “I got you a hug.” I hugged him and he cried on my shoulder. I looked into his eyes and said, “I see you, man.” It doesn’t take as much effort as people think.
I started small. I started volunteering at the Denver children’s hospital before I ever thought about Fight for the Forgotten. I volunteered for the oncology unit, and then, all of a sudden, Rashad Evans was there, and Brendan Schaub, and Justin Gaethje, and Duane “Bang” Ludwig came in. We were all visiting these kids and playing video games with them, and sometimes holding their hands before they went into surgery. That’s where it started for me. After that, I was looking to make a difference anywhere I could—head on a swivel. What can I do next? Who can I help?
The more you help others, the more it helps you. That’s not my main motivation, but what I’ve learned through recovery is that, when all else fails, when the meditation isn’t working, or exercise isn’t working, or whatever you’re trying to do to feel better isn’t working, help somebody. When you get outside of yourself and help somebody else, you start to reconnect with a purpose.
49:50 – What Justin Got Back from the Pygmies
I told them so many times that I’m so grateful for them saving my life. I’ve learned so much from them about how to love, how to spend time with people. They like to say, “You Westerners, you have all the watches, but we’re the ones with the time.” They taught me how to value time. They remind you to slow down and enjoy things. Slow down and be here.
I’m not fluent in their language, but I know the language of the heart. You can tune into that without speaking someone’s language, and you will be in tears laughing, cheeks hurting from smiling so much. Some of the best nights of my life were spent drenched in my own sweat from laughing and dancing with these people. I think it was Seneca, the Stoic philosopher, that said, “Life is long, if you know how to use it.”