Justin Wren, also known as by The Big Pygmy, is truly an amazing human being. He has gone from fighting against people in UFC and The Ultimate Fighter to fighting for people in the Congo to have access to clean water.
In this interview, Justin and I spoke about:
- His MMA career
- Marrying his wife Emily at a surprise wedding
- His humanitarian work with Water4 and Fight for the Forgotten
- How he and Water4 worked with communities to decrease slavery in the Congo
- The importance of living to love people.
You came from a wrestling and MMA background, but tell me, what was it like for you growing up as a teenager?
As a teenager, it was really rough until I got in the sport of wrestling and gained some confidence, but I had basically zero confidence. My confidence was shattered. And not just confidence, but I had zero self-worth or esteem.
I really felt trapped by that and was clinically diagnosed with depression at 13 years old, because the bullying got so bad.
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Starting today like I'm in #fightcamp with three training sessions planned. I just finished at @greenstrengthiv, I'm headed to do some bag work with @lovatojrbjj right now, and then this evening I'm getting in my grappling with the @lovatobjjmma academy. I can't wait to have another performance like my last outing in @bellatormma and to let out a few more Pygmy forest calls as my battle cry. #FightForTheForgotten
There’s two very methodical and premeditated moments in my life where the whole school was in on a bullying moment. At the end of it they’re saying you’re worthless.
In 2005 you had a serious elbow injury. How did that happen?
I was wrestling a guy that was an Olympic bronze medalist and a world champion. I was 18 years old and he was in his mid-30s so he had a tonne of experience at the time and strength on his side. Anyways it was just kind of a freak accident.
I was only losing by a point, but I didn’t want to give up anymore points, I probably should of, and ended up breaking my arm and dislocating it, tearing the ulna collateral ligaments.
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So pumped for my brother @lovatojrbjj to have the best performance of his LIFE in his already many time 🌎 championship career! #Repost: Great shot of me wrestling with my brotha @thebigpygmy in preparation for my superfight with Buchecha. Having a bad ass heavyweight wrestler here at home to scrap with is a blessing. Can't wait to show my work! #LovatoXBuchecha #ADCC #TeamLovatoJJ #LovatoJiuJitsu #RibeiroJiuJitsu #OKCBJJ #Family 📸 by @slackjitsu
It basically really jacked up my arm and from that stems my battle with addiction. I was given opioids, Oxycontin and some other stuff.
From that, you know, it took four months to fight with the insurance company. You pay for insurance it’s like – why can’t you guys help me?
The only thing the doctors could do, because their hands were kind of tied, was give me pain pills because my arm was broken and dislocated and ulna collateral ligament was completely severed. So it wasn’t even touching. So I was in a pretty bad amount of pain. But from that started a six year addiction and it was real bad.
On a similar note, one of your biggest supporters in your life is your wife, Emily. I watched the video that’s on your YouTube channel, but can you tell us how did you and Emily meet?
That’s kind of funny. We met online. I had met some friends that went with a couple to a surprise engagement. We were talking to a new happy engaged couple and a married couple.
I’m like, “Well how did you guys meet?”
And they said, “We met online.”
“Did you really?”
And they said, “Yeah.”
The married couple was like, “We met online too.”
” Oh come on you guys you’re all teasing me.”
And then the said, “No really, we’ll sign you up.”
They just copied and pasted pictures from Google and made it real cheesy.
In my email I had my first five matches and literally in my first five matches the fifth one was Emily! Pretty crazy!
I looked at her profile and was like, “Wow! This girl’s beautiful, she seems really cool.” I’m like, “Oh but she lives 12-13 hours away. This won’t work!”
But something in me just said message her and so I hit message.
Then it said, “We’re sorry, you must pay the $29.99 subscription fee to message this user.”
So basically, the best $29.99 I’ve ever spent without a shadow of a doubt.
Oh, it looks like it was worth the investment!
The proposal was very special too wasn’t it? Can you tell us a little more about that?
I had actually proposed to her and we’d been engaged for maybe a year but I thought the wedding date was a different date. Like it was going to be later.
I had went and lived in the Congo for a year and I asked her to marry me before I left. I wanted her to marry me before I left to Congo. Then in the Congo I had a wedding dress for her in case she wanted to get married in the rainforest with the Pygmies.
She said she really wanted to wait for her family. So anyway, I came back home thinking that we’d get married later, and I thought I was going to just see a couple of friends and meet people, because I’d just come back home after being in Congo for a year.
Hadn’t seen a lot of people so I thought I’d maybe see 15-20 of my friends and really not even friends but like my parents, her parents, and a handful of friends. It was really cool because all of a sudden we’re on the road and they pull over, also they put a laptop in my lap.
I watch this video and it’s Emily asking me to marry her, but to marry her not at the later date, but that day.
She had all my clothes ready.It was a big surprise.I was going to come in; see all my friends and family.All of a sudden they turn the car back on and drive into a friend’s house.
It’s the entire wedding that’s set up; it’s my wedding day! It’s a big surprise to me.
I had friends and family from Maryland and New York and California and Colorado and Florida. Our friend from Uganda actually came. People from all around the country came and they pulled off the biggest surprise of my life and also the best day of my life. All on the same day.
So it’s absolutely amazing! You’re one of the first people that ever asked me about it, so it’s really cool on the interview. Love her so much, she’s amazing.
Justin, I saw that you were recently awarded the Henry P. Iba Citizen Athlete Award. Congratulations! What did the award mean for you, Water4, and Fight for the Forgotten?
Well it’s, practically a door opener. It’s a big opportunity for me to be able to just share my story with more people and also open the door for Fight for the Forgotten and Water4. Personally, it was such a big encouragement. So many of United States’ best athletes use their platform to make a difference in the world.
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Incredible night at the @ibaawards last night! I'm a big fan and new friend of the female recipient @lochamberlain and it was awesome having the #NFL player and great man in @tdlockett12 present the award to me, an awesome man! Also listening to #Olympic 🥇 @shannonmiller96 and the former #NBA player @c_herren_ share their amazing story was inspirational!
I’m the first fighter to ever be nominated and to ever win the award.
It’s really cool to show people hey, MMA fighters, we have big hearts, and we try to do good things for people.
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So this just happened… It was really neat to be honored as this years male recipient for the @ibaawards Citizen Athlete of the year for an athlete that uses their platform to make a difference in the world. I'm a fighter, but I'd much rather be known as fighting FOR people and using my passion and energy to #knockoutthewatercrisis with #FightForTheForgotten and Water4. But, that doesn't mean I'm not coming for that @bellatormma world championship belt with a passion and fire 🔥 in my belly, heart, and deep within my bones! Thank you #Tulsa #Oklahoma for having me! I'm honored and extremely humbled… Thank you to @shannonmiller96 & @c_herren_ for bringing down the house in their inspirational keynote (I cried!). Congrats to my new friend and homegirl @lochamberlain for being this years female recipient! Thanks @tdlockett12 for giving me such a kind introduction and presenting me with the award bro! What an incredible night. Thank you to #Rotary for honoring us all and doing incredible work in the world! Thank you @eotefashioninc for the fresh suit! Such a kind gift and I got about 30+ compliments asking me where I got it… Very generous of you!
I just want to use this platform to inspire others to do the same. To fight for people, to love people, I want to do that with anyone watching the fights but especially the athletes.
For those who are new to the humanitarian work you are doing, can you explain the difference between Water4 and Fight for the Forgotten?
Water4 has now come underneath Water4 as an initiative. We’re no longer our own organisation, we are an initiative underneath Water4, which we love, we’re really excited about we’re able to do so much more.
Water4 has 44 well-drilling teams.What they do is they train up local men and women to create their own businesses and knock out the water crisis that they face, that they suffer from. We want to empower the people who need it the most, the people who suffer from it.
Just last year alone, Water4 empowered 400 people to have jobs, 44 businesses or well-drilling teams and they drilled 690 water wells just last year alone.
It’s amazing how you can just with just a few people and you can empower millions of others towards sustainable clean water access. Love that!
Why was it important for Fight for the Forgotten to focus on land, food, and water initiatives?
Because that’s what’s, from sitting down with the people, in the villages and communities that’s what we learned would impact them the most.
I just listen to and learn from them first. The locals need to participate. If they’re sitting on the sidelines then it doesn’t feel like it’s not empowering if like even subliminally, just like in the back of their mind they feel like they can’t help themselves.
We don’t want people to feel that way.
We always say opportunity is greater than charity. Charity can be great but opportunity is always better.
Let’s reserve charity for times of real crisis such as natural disasters or famines or war or people who can’t help themselves like people facing tough disabilities. But man, if it’s poverty, charity’s not the answer, a handout isn’t an answer, a true real hand up is the answer. That’s creating an opportunity for them to help themselves because they’re willing, they’re capable, they’re able, they’re smart, they’re brilliant.
All we got to do is empower those people.
One of the things, that I’ve learned working with some charities is about representation: the representation of people living in developing countries.
You don’t want to show them as being people who are just suffering and people who just need our charity.
Do you think that representation is something that is important for Water4 and Fight for the Forgotten as well?
The majority of our videos and everything aren’t the traditional ones, the ones that tug on your heartstrings in ways of, Oh this person’s suffering so much, and will you help this person because they can’t help themselves.
Our videos are more like:
Hey this is what they’re facing, but look how awesome they are! Look at how beautiful their culture is. Look at this person’s amazing smile. Look at them trying to help themselves being trained up. Look at them drilling these water wells. They used to face a water crisis now look at them knocking the water crisis out. This person used to get paid two bananas a day from sun-up to sun-down for their entire family. Now they have a banana farm of over 350 banana trees.
They’re able to eat all the bananas they want and they go to the market and sell them and from that they’re able to send their kids to school and pay school fees and buy clothes and buy whatever they need.
We try to represent them as amazing awesome people and show inspiring stories that are happening because they’re so awesome, because they’re so great. Hopefully, the representation we’re giving is that they’re the heroes. That they are the ones doing the work.
And we can help also clarify those misconceptions of representation through media like blogs and podcasts and through your work as well. That is all very good!
Thank you, Jared.
Back in 2015, the electronics company Jasco partnered with Water4. How did Jasco help in providing access to clean and safe water?
Jasco has been an incredible blessing, it’s just an empowerment mechanism for us where they’re our biggest supporter, without a doubt. They probably don’t even want the props for that at all, I know they don’t, but they’re so humble.
Without them we wouldn’t be able to do a lot of the work that we do. This is a company of like 400 people, maybe even 500.
Since 1972, they’ve been giving 50% of their profits away from the company, to non-profits and charitable organisations.
So they’re just incredibly generous!
It’s the culture of the entire business and their employees love supporting it. I’m going out tonight to hang out with some of the head employees and it’s because they’re just awesome, they love supporting us, I love supporting them. Jasco started and created a brand underneath Jasco called Eco Survivor.
I’ve been helping develop and design, at least just giving them ideas. I’m not an engineer. But helping them come up with ideas for great outdoor products that are rugged, that stand up to the elements, that are impact and dust and rain and water resistant and proof.
Eco Survivor is giving 50% of their profits to Fight for the Forgotten to really empower our guys to knock out the water crisis.
Something that not many people know is that the Congo is one of many places in the world where slavery still persists. Why is that?
I don’t know the stats on other countries, and where it exists and where it doesn’t, but it is definitely in Congo. I just think it’s one of the only ones that’s started to be talked about, on a wide scale.
There’s an estimated 27 million slaves on planet Earth today.
That’s more than ever in human history, modern day slavery is on the rise. It’s not decreasing. It’s increasing!
People need to know about that within the Mbuti Pygmies, it’s an estimated 400 to 600 thousand.
It’s just a brutal number and we’ve got to do something about it, people need to know about it first so that we can do something about it. In Congo it’s a crazy place because it’s the richest country on planet Earth when it comes to natural resources.
The richest country on planet Earth, it has more gold and diamonds and coltan and cobalt and copper and nickel, all these different things like it’s one of the major powerhouses in the world.
One of the things that you, Water4, and Fight for the Forgotten have been doing is giving back land back to the Mbuti Pygmies, for giving back their freedom. How did you manage to reclaim thousands of acres of land back to the Mbuti Pygmies whilst keeping peace with the slavemasters?
We’d buy land back from the Mokpala, the non-Pygmies, and it would benefit them financially. It would benefit them by having land for the first time legally in their country’s history. That was an incredible opportunity for both sides.
Also the blue chip bargaining tool or the best thing we could bring to the negotiation tables, which didn’t even seem like negotiation tables, it was like, “Just say we want to help, how can we help, well this looks like a good way to help.” Both sides.
We don’t love one side and hate the other, because you’re only going to cause more problems for the people that you’re trying to love, in this case we’re actually trying to love both sides.
We also brought in water, and from my experience, burying a one and a half year old named Andibo that forever changed my life. I was holding him as he passed, he was just one and a half years old, died just because of dirty water.
That happened again later with a nine month old named Babo. I’ve known several people, many people have been to probably seven or eight funerals there just because of water-borne disease. We wanted to help them get clean water and so with the land purchases also, both sides of the community were going to get access to clean water.
The youngest kids on planet Earth are most susceptible. These villages were having that, one of the clinics in the area found out that for the three years before we got there, 87% of their cases were water-related illness. Nine out of ten of their cases were water-related illness, and they’re spending a lot of their income on getting better or they’re spending money and their kids are still dying.
We found out with some of the slavemasters, most of them were making $1.00 to $1.25 per day.
They would tell us, “Maybe for my grandfather and my great-grandfather this way of life and being masters was a benefit, but right now it’s just a burden. How are we supposed to take care of our own family on a dollar a day and then how are we supposed to turn around and take care of someone else’s family.
To say, “Well what if you didn’t have to do that anymore?” They’re like, “Yes, how can we do that?”. It’s like well, this is how you can do that.
Be at peace, let them go, they’ll still be friends and if they still want to work for you, you can pay them a fair wage. But they’re going to have land of their own, water of their own, food of their own, same for you.
We’re going to help you start better farming initiatives and just somehow, man I think it was just a blessing that it worked.
Back in 2014, I was the ambassador of an Australian charity called One Girl which worked to allow girls in Sierra Leone, West Africa the opportunity to go to school.
I remember learning about how the simple act of a mother who was able to put sugar into tea for guests made her feel not only wealthy but happy.
One of the things that economists speak about is the importance of investing into people and experiences more so than physical purchases like a car.
What has the humanitarian work you are doing taught you about true happiness?
That happiness comes from people, and relationships, and loving each other and I’m an athlete. I get paid to do what I love for a living.
I’ve wrestled in Moscow and kickboxed in Amsterdam, I’ve been to Main Event at the Hard Rock in Las Vegas, I’ve fought in front of 6.8 million people, I’ve been to the Super Bowl and the World Series and the NBA finals and the biggest sporting events on planet Earth. I’ve been to most of them. Or at least in the United States, I’ve been to most of them.
Man, the cheers, and the applause, and the crowd of a small village getting access to clean water, drowns out the sounds of a stadium with 100,000 people cheering for a sport. Because it’s a different kind of cheer, it’s a cheer of victory, true victory, not a game but a life victory. It’s almost a victory over death. Having access to clean water, something so simple, but I think such a basic human necessity and right, to have clean water and access to it.
I think family; I think the village life; I think community is a source of happiness. I think community that you can depend on. I think so much of our culture and society now tells us, build a big house for yourself and maybe one or two or three other people. And hide away in that for most of the time. It breaks us from relationship with the people around us.
I think it all comes down to relationship and each other, and a Swahili proverb I absolutely love is, it says:
And this life is fast, but it’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon, and so we need each other to go far, to go far in life, and in relationship.
Yes, and that reminds me of a proverb that I’ve been told, which was, “Success is not about how far you go in life, but how many people you took with you.”
Yes. That’s, that’s incredible. That’s awesome. I love that.
There’s a theological construct known as theodicy, which tries to understand why a good God allows bad things to happen. How did seeing all the injustice and atrocities in the Congo and Uganda influence your faith?
I feel like God’s looking for people to say yes, that I’m going to make a difference and I’m going to reach out and I’m going to love people and I’m going to help people. That doesn’t mean bad things won’t happen, I had malaria, I almost died. I had malaria three times.
But my perspective was, okay God why is this happening? I’m like, “Ah, I get to understand. I get to understand what these people face on a day-to-day basis.
I get to not just hear about it, I get to live it and I get to feel it and I get to vomit and I get to throw up red and green or blood and bile. And I get to feel the terrible fevers and the cold chills and the joint pain and I get to have black-water fever and Lord if you take me at least I’m here loving people.
And at least I’m doing something good with my life. If I die today I can die smiling because I’m a part of the answer, not a part of the problem and I’m here to love people.”
And I didn’t, and afterwards I had so much gratitude for life and being around people in Africa and specifically the Pygmies and the tribes around them, there are no non-spiritual people. Every single person is spiritual it seems. And I know there’s a battle of Good and Evil and that’s what they believe, and that’s what I believe to and I’ve seen basically.
I just think indifference causes so much pain in the world. Instead of being indifferent no matter what you believe, let’s be part of the change we want to see in the world.
Yes, and I agree!
The actress Diane Guerrero from the Netflix series Orange Is The New Black spoke to a group of school students in Boston last year.
One of the things she told them was that she felt like she was more than just an actress, but a person who could help speak up about various issues that she was passionate about.
Similarly, other celebrities have used their platform as public figures to raise awareness about various global issues.
In what ways, has being a public figure opened doors for you to raise awareness about the global water crisis and Water4 that would not have otherwise been possible?
The Iba Awards, that was a huge one! If I wasn’t an athlete and people didn’t know about the work I was doing that wouldn’t happen but also it’s opened the door to write a book. There’s a book out called Fight for the Forgotten that a New York Times bestselling author helped me write.
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I have to post out a BIG CONGRATS today to @xanderibeirojj for another dominating performance like he has his entire career in #jiujitsu and showcasing @ribeirojiujitsu 🙏 I feel very fortunate to have met and become friends with this outstanding man because of Professor @lovatojrbjj and @lovatobjjmma academy where we get to learn the everything #ribeirojj has to showcase. It's such a grueling, physical, dominating form of #bjj and I've LOVED learning that grind! #6blades This was after my last fight where @lovatojrbjj and I both finished our opponents in the first and where I had the opportunity to #FightForTheForgotten again 👊👊😁😁 We had an INCREDIBLE crowd there and had an amazing time afterwards celebrating the win, and the fight FOR people to have clean 💧#photobomb #BrazilainJiuJitsu #PanAms #panams2017 #abudhabigrandslam #jiujitsulifestyle #ibjjf #ibjjfpans
That’s turned into raising awareness within thousands and thousands of people, knowing my story, my journey, giving the Pygmies a voice.
That’s turned into a documentary, that’s coming out later this year, either at the end of this year, beginning of next year. We’re done filming now, it’s gone into editing, they’re writing the music for it and all that. The Pygmies are going to be on film, having their own voice, sharing their own story, having their family on film and hopefully, we’re fighting for the forgotten to make sure that they have a voice and they’re not forgotten. That they know that they’re loved, cherished, and amazing incredible people.
It’s opened so many doors and opportunities.
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I had a great time filming a segment about #WorldWaterDay coming up on next Wednesday, March 22nd, where we get the opportunity to raise awareness on the worlds water crisis. There are at LEAST 1.5 million preventable deaths per year due to waterborne disease… and that is JUST children 👶 under the age of 5 years old! We have the solution, we have the technology, and in today's age NO ONE should go without access to clean water… The utmost basic human right and necessity. Stay tuned to hear about how we will continue to #FightForTheForgotten at Water4 and how we are partnering with #EcoSurvivor and @jascoproducts to #knockoutthewatercrisis! 😁🙏🙏
People that have followed and reached out and people that are, just brought up an actor but actors that have somehow stumbled upon my story and had me on podcasts or sent out donations privately, don’t want be published, awareness, or props for it. They just helped us really change the lives of people in multiple villages. It’s been an incredible rise, it’s been an awesome journey.
What is your vision for future generations of people in the Congo and Uganda?
I want to see the people of Congo come up. I don’t want to see them the poorest country on Earth, I want to see them come up and having more access to school and water and food and healthcare, hospitals, better roads. A lot of community development, but just a whole lot of love.
That’s what I want to see!
Water4 have a new campaign that is dear to your heart called Dig Deeper. Tell me more about this new campaign.
Yeah so Dig Deeper is a campaign for these guys in Uganda..Our team’s in Congo but we have the fingerprints of these Ugandan well drillers on all 65 of our water wells.
They are the guys who trained us on how to drill wells, they have drilled over 100 water wells and they came and taught us how to drill. We were only failing before they came, basically as reinforcements who came to our rescue to train us.
Also right now currently, they are the supply chain of all of our well drilling equipment. All the pipes, everything comes through Uganda and they get it to us in Congo.
Dig Deeper is a way to empower them to drill five water vending kiosks or five water wells, and then also set up these water towers, or water vending stations that they’re able to charge the local community these small incremental amounts.
It’s five cents for five gallons, it’s very low, very affordable, everywhere in the world you pay for clean water. That’s what we’re starting up there because even in some cases they’re paying for dirty water.
When they don’t go collect it, someone else collects it for them, sets up a little shop, or little station, or sits on a jerry can and sells the dirty water so people don’t have to walk so far. They’re used to paying for dirty water, now we get them used to paying for clean water, but what that does is it goes back in to their own community, and it maintenance, the wells, and it goes to fund further wells.
By the next year, they should be able to drill another water well, from each one of these vending kiosks. They were drilling five, we’re setting them up, and then hopefully at the end of this year there’ll be five more.
And then maybe at the end of that, next year, since there’ll be ten, maybe there’ll be ten more. We’re really trying to impact the communities in ways that it, we kind of called it pay it forward but really we’re paying it forward in the community to where they can keep this going and going and going.
We just met the goal, but it would be incredible, we’re going through the rest of the month, this would be incredible to completely knock it out of the park and raise more than we had expected.
What can people do to support Water4?
There’s a couple of ways.
You can go to water4.org/digdeeper you can give to that campaign, specifically the Ugandan drillers and the people of Uganda.
We have a monthly giving club called Team Watermark and that’s how you can make your mark on the water crisis. Basically, for $25 a month, at the end of the year you will have given hopefully life-long sustainable access to clean water for the rest of 15 people’s lives. $25 is just an example, you can give less, you can give more, but $25 impacts the life of 15 people, giving them access to clean water.That’s another big way.
You can do a one-time donation or you could do the reoccurring that really makes us sustainable which allows us to know where to budget, how much we have to spend, how many wells we can drill and all that stuff.
I want you now to imagine that you are in a room with 18 year old Justin Wren. What would you tell him?
I’d tell him something that sounds a little cheesy. But, I would hope that it sinks down deep into his heart, and that he would live it out.
I would say, “Live to love, love to live. If you chase a life where you’re just wanting to love the one life that you get to live, and you think you’re going to fill that up by money and cars and fame, and accolades, like it’s only going to end in un-fulfilment. But if you live a life to love, if you live to love, live to love people, you’re going to love the life you live as a result of that.”
So I think that’s what I’d say to him, if that makes sense here. I think we get it, we get the other one, we get them flip-flopped. We say, ” Love to live, live to love.” I don’t know how to say it but we get it flip-flopped. We get so consumed with wanting to be happy, and wanting to love life, that we fill it with stuff instead of people.
If we could just live to love and have our head on a swivel, looking to do that. Then it’s just a natural reaction that’s just a byproduct, it’s only common sense that we’ll love the life that we live.
Definitely! So living a life of purpose beyond ourselves. I love it!
Without a doubt. Yeah, we have to; we must, because life’s not about me. Life’s a lot bigger than that. We got to get outside of ourselves.
Was there anything else you wanted to share that we didn’t get to cover?
I wanted to say thank you, definitely wanted to say thank you so much, I appreciate your time, the opportunity to speak with you, share my story. Get it in Australia, that’s awesome!
I’ve always wanted to go! I really, that’s on my bucket list without a doubt. I even want to come train with Mark Hunt if I can before he retires. Great MMA fighter out there named Mark Hunt, the Super Samoan. I really appreciate you getting my story out there.
Any future plans like Dancing With The Stars, the Olympics?
Do they have that in Australia? Try to get me on. I’ll come dance on there.
No future plans for that kind of thing.
People have said things about movies or movie roles or even been asked about potential being in a show called The Vikings. Vikings on History Channel here in the States, it’s funny I’m like, “Wow, why? Like I’m not an actor, I’m just a fighter and a dude that wants to love people and fight for them.”
I only want to accept them if it’s an opportunity to make a difference.
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