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SB Nation Exclusive Interview With UFC Vet And TUF Alum Justin Wren

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Justin tells us all about training with Shane Carwin at the Grudge Training Center, his thoughts on the state of the heavyweight division, and what he thinks about professional wrestlers wanting to fight in MMA.

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SB Nation caught up with Justin Wren while he was in Miami to train for his upcoming fight July 17th.

With only nine days to fight night, what are you doing in Miami?

I came down to Miami to train with Tony Johnson, the King Of The Cage heavyweight champion. Shane Carwin and Brendan Schaub both fought last Saturday night at UFC 116, and Demico Rogers has a fight coming up this weekend, so with three big guys missing I wanted to get some last minute practice in with a big heavyweight.

I know you recently relocated to Colorado to train at the Grudge Training Center following your time on The Ultimate Fighter, have you purchased your Tim Tebow jersey yet?

No way. I grew up in Texas so I liked the Cowboys, but actually my dad was the a photographer for the Green Bay Packers so we'd go watch games at Lambeau Field. I was a huge Brett Favre fan. He and my dad are friends, we're kind of family friends with he and his family. They're both from Mississippi and knew each other before he got real big.

How do you like training at Grudge with fighters like Shane Carwin, Brendan Schaub, Nate Marquardt, and Rashad Evans?

Yea, I honestly couldn't see myself being a part of any other camp. We've got too good of a thing going on at Grudge Training Center. Our trainers are the best, our training partners are the best. I'm very lucky and very blessed to be a part of it. The elevation is another huge advantage out in Colorado. I actually live at 8,800ft elevation on top of a mountain overlooking downtown Denver. I come down to 5,280ft to train. You come down here to Miami, hitting mitts and sparring, and I feel like I can go all day. I also have an altitude simulator for back at sea level to maintain that advantage for as long as possible.  I just put my mouth up to a thing for an hour a day and it simulates my air as if I were at 20,000ft for the day. I'm using it to improve my cardio, it can be a heavyweight's strongest weapon. It's one of the most important things in MMA. All the best technique in the world doesn't mean anything if you can't put it into action once you hit the second round.

You're a training partner of Shane Carwin's.  What do you think about the way people have criticized his cardio coming into the second round of his fight with Brock Lesnar?

Shane was definitely in shape for that fight. It was just a lot of different things going into it.  It was his first fight to go to the second round, he almost finished it earlier in the fight, and he spent a ton of energy trying to finish it. I'm not trying to be biased, but I think eight out of ten refs would have stopped it in the first round. It was a great job by Brock to come back, but I think that if it had been stopped not many people would have complained. That's also a testament to Brock being the champion, being able to fight through that.

How hard do you guys go in the gym?

Shane and I? It's fun. Sometimes we'll just bite down on our mouthpieces and bang. I don't know if we go 100%, but yea, his punches hurt. It's something that really rattles you. His hands are so big and he's so strong and powerful that for Brock to withstand it, says a whole lot. No one has been able to take that punishment from him, not one person.

I've heard you guys have had to turn a few people down from coming to train at Grudge.

I'm the new guy at Grudge so I haven't been around too long. It was definitely a process for me to get in. Luckily, I was on TUF and there were a lot of guys who wanted to come be a part of Grudge after the show, but they only took a few of us. I was the only one immediately invited and I felt pretty amazing about that. They want guys that are positive, that have a good attitude, have a good work ethic, and are really just good people. They don't want people who are selfish and not team players, guys trying to be a hot shot during training who might end up hurting their training partners.  Everybody helps everybody. We have great strikers, great wrestlers, great jui jitsu guys, we all help each other out. Our sparring days are brutal, but it's just cool to see the team atmosphere.

I heard you were injured for your first couple of fights, is that right?

Actually, my injury put me into those fights. I wrestled a guy who was the 2002 world champion in greco roman wrestling and I got my arm snapped.  It broke and got dislocated, tore the ulnar collateral ligament so I had to get a full replacement where they took a tendon out of my hamstring and put it in my elbow. I was recruited to Iowa state and was kind of like a medical redshirt. I wasn't on the team but they kept telling me to stay active. So at the time I was just cornering guys. I flew to Oklahoma City to corner one of my best friends and he had a staph infection and was on crutches. The other guy was talking about how he was gonna knock my friend out. He was like a black belt in tae kwon do and had a karate school and all this stuff, just talking trash. The promoter asked me if I wanted to fight so I said sure. I took the fight the day of weigh-ins and had never trained MMA. I had been a fan of it since I was thirteen years old so I just jumped on the opportunity and won the fight. The same thing happened my second fight. I flew down to corner the same friend but this time he had the flu. I took over for him on a two day notice and won the fight. The third fight was in Iowa. I was in the stands and a guy went into the cage and called out anyone in the arena because his opponent didn't show up. I raised my hand, won that fight too. I think I had just turned 19.

Did you lose your scholarship due to fighting?

No, I never really lost it. They told me I could fight in the summers as long as I didn't take any endorsements which would disqualify me from the NCAA.  After a year they said they frowned upon the fighting because it was dangerous. I took seven fights in seven months. If I was going to be a scholarship athlete they wanted to protect their investment, so I just made the decision to pursue fighting. I had actually gotten into wrestling because of the UFC so it's a decision I've never regretted.

I know your mom used to not watch your fights. Is that still the case?

Ha, no she watches them now. She either watches them through her fingers or out in the concourse of the arena. She just waits for the result before coming back down to watch the highlights on the big screen. They love the sport now. They buy all the pay-per views. Once people get educated about it they completely turn their thinking around.

What do you think about people even now who still see it as just a brutal sport?

I think to a certain degree it's every fighters' responsibility to be an ambassador for the sport. It's what we love and what we do day in and day out. It's a lifestyle for us. The people who think that way just aren't educated about MMA and haven't really given it a chance. If you sit and watch the training that goes into it, we are more disciplined and are working out harder, smarter, and longer than any other professional athletes. They have to learn one sport, we have to know multiple sports.

Grudge has a partnership with Greg Jackson. I Know Rashad Evans came to train with you guys in Colorado and it looks like the lighter weight guys are training mostly with Greg. Is there kind of a split with the heavyweights mostly training over at Grudge?

I wouldn't say there's a split. I think we just have a great group of big guys. We have some awesome lighter weight guys at Grudge. It's sort of a thing where Greg has so many great fighters, he might have more guys who fly in for their camp or come in for only a few weeks at a time. Grudge is more of a home base for guys. In Denver, the majority of the guys live there, constantly learning and progressing. Greg definitely helps us with our game planning and technique, but I feel like grudge is Trevor Wittman's baby. He and Greg are partners, but T is the mastermind behind Grudge. 

I know you've said that losing to Roy Nelson on TUF turned out being a good thing because instead of fighting Brendan Schaub in the finale you ended up moving to Colorado and training with him. How do you feel about no longer being in the UFC?

I just try to keep positive. Being released has just made me more hungry. I've had a taste of the big show. Everyone wants to be there, I want to get back there, but I'm not in any rush. I'm only twenty-three so I have plenty of time to get back there. I'm still working on improving my strong points and my weaknesses. The whole thing was a great experience and I'm working hard to get back there.

Who are you training BJJ with? Are you trying to emulate anyone's fighting style in particular?

I'm training with Easton BJJ in Colorado. I think they have something like twenty-five black belts in their gym so it's kind of nuts. Plus they have plenty of big guys to roll with. I'm not trying to fight like anyone in particular, more just trying to prepare for different styles to be able to get either submissions or knockouts.

What do you think of guys like Batista coming into MMA?

Someone like Brock had a real wrestling background. Even Bobby Lashley did. I would love for that to be a match up for me. At least those guys have a real wrestling background. Batista is forty-one years old, so I don't know what he's trying to accomplish by getting in the game being a fake wrestler. I think he's going to get a real rude awakening real quick. I'm not saying that he's not big and athletic because to do professional wrestling you have to have some skill and talent, and even have some acting skills. In MMA all you have to do is know how to fight, be a hard worker, and be disciplined in all the right areas. He's getting in too late. I know people like Randy Couture came into the sport later but look at what he did all his life. He wrestled his entire life, he boxed in the army. Batista is coming in trying to fight people who have been training MMA since they were in high school, so he's going to have a tough time unless they baby him just like they baby Bobby Lashley.

What do you think about Strikeforce? Would you ever sign with them?

I'd definitely think about it. I'd be an honor to fight for Strikeforce but I hope they're not going down the same road as Elite XC. Advertising Kimbo as the next best thing or having Lashey fight Batista if that happens. I feel like MMA has a lot of integrity, a lot of good people in it. I'm sure it would be a good payday but I don't know. It's all about ratings for certain promotions but I wish there was some more integrity behind it. Two pro wrestlers in an MMA fight isn't something I would want to watch, but I'm sure all the WWE fans want to see it happen. It's either a publicity stunt or just to be able to say he's a fighter. Dana White is correct whenever he says every athlete in the world can come in and look up to MMA fighters. It has so many parts to it and is so intricate and detailed. A lot of guys just want to say they're fighters. It takes more than that. If he's not smart and he's not babied he's going to get hurt. I'm not saying he's not tough enough to take a beating, because that's what he's going to get.

What do you think about guys like James Toney coming in to fight Randy Couture?

It's a freak show to a certain extent, but not. It's a little bit of both. Lashley fighting Batista is absolutely 100% a freak show, but you put Randy Couture in there with one of the best boxers in the world and that raises some interest for me. Do I think James Toney will ever be a champion in the sport? No. How is he going to stop a world class wrestler's takedowns? Or world class grapplers from submitting him? Or even a K1 level kickboxer from kicking or kneeing him in the face? But you know, Randy's been caught by Brock, by Chuck, and if you give Toney 15-30 seconds on the feet anything could happen. If he doesn't land that KO punch, the second he's on his back he's going to get pounded out or submitted.

I actually thought Carwin was the best heavyweight in the world, and pretty much still do, and with Fedor recently losing it kind of reaffirmed my thinking. I just can't accept Brock Lesnar being the top heavyweight in the world. Who do you think is at the top of the division right now?

Brock came back, he's the champion, but I still think Shane's the best. I think that if he'd gone to the second round before the heavyweight championship and knew how to handle it and not exert all of his energy trying to finish Brock it would have gone differently. In my opinion Shane is number 1 or 2, and Alistair Overeem is the other one.

Dana White has been pretty adamant about Overeem being overrated right now and that he's not the new number one guy.  He keeps harping about when he was knocked out by Chuck Liddell.

That was before he was UBEREEM. I've trained with Overeem and he's a monster. Shane and Overeem are the two best heavyweights I've ever trained with, and I've trained with Frank Mir, Randy Couture, a lot of good guys.

How is Dana White behind the scenes?

He's really relaxed and extremely personable. It was pretty cool meeting him. He was very welcoming. I met him for the first time when I was on The Ultimate Fighter and we've hung out. He's a real nice guy. I think he's just really passionate about the sport and rightfully so. He's done more for the sport than anyone else has and I think he looks at it like its his baby. He's very opinionated but every time I've had a personal dealing with him he's been great.

Can you tell us anything about your upcoming fight? Is it true that your opponent has pulled out 4 or 5 times?

Haha Absolutely. I count this guy as my fifth.  Three other guys accepted the fight and pulled out but I commend this guy for taking it on only fourteen or fifteen days notice. I'm not overlooking him at all but there were some other guys and other styles I was preparing for. I'm just excited to get in there and fight. The fight is in Mississippi, I was born in Mississippi so this will be the first time fighting in front of most of my family.

My fight is July 17th at the Coliseum. I think it's just about sold out and I'm the main event. I'm very excited about it and I just want to go in there and finish it as soon as possible. I want a decisive victory. After that, I'm sitting down with my coach and my agent to talk about the plan of attack from there. If it's going back to the UFC or looking at better offers. I'm looking into maybe fighting in Japan since I've always wanted to do that.  Might as well do it while I'm young and build some experience. I'm just excited for the future.