Remember Bumfights? If not, it was a deeply disturbing viral video from 2002, where homeless men were enticed into doing incredibly stupid and dangerous things, such has fighting each other in brutal gladiator-type bouts and running face-first into metal poles.
Rufus Hannah was featured in the original video. Without mincing words, the man looked horrible. A mess. But in an amazing turnaround, he’s gotten his life together, married an “old flame” (with whom he already has children), and has been sober for 8 years.
He works for a San Diego real estate developer named Barry Soper, who helped Hannah write a book, A Bum Deal, which tells Hannah’s life story and his subsequent advocacy work for the homeless.
From a 2010 profile in the San Diego Union Tribune:
He doesn’t feel sorry for himself, even if all the head-bashing he went through left him with double-vision and a wobbly walk. He’s come a long way from the wild-haired, toothless cartoon that starred in the movie. Sober now for eight years, he has a steady job and a new wife and a life he likes in the San Carlos neighborhood of San Diego.
No, what bothers him is how “Bumfights” contributed to a sick trend: homeless bashing. From coast to coast, certain people — usually young men — have deemed it not just OK but cool to physically attack transients. And sometimes film it.
Hannah met Soper 11 years at one of the complexes the real estate developer owned.
They had almost nothing in common. Hannah was born and raised in Georgia, an upbringing that was Baptist in principle and alcoholic in practice. He dropped out of high school, had five kids with three different women. Soper, a Jew, was born in Massachusetts and earned a sociology degree from the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut before coming to San Diego and buying a string of rental-housing complexes.
They met on a summer day 11 years ago at one of the complexes, in San Carlos. At a Dumpster outside the complex, to be exact.
Hannah and his best friend were there looking for aluminum cans they could turn into cash, and ultimately into booze.
Soper, 65, doesn’t usually pay much attention to his trash receptacles, but someone had defecated next to this particular one a day earlier, so he was watchful. When he caught Hannah inside the Dumpster that morning, he got mad.
“Get the hell out of here,” Soper said.
“You’re ruining our canning route,” Hannah snapped back.
Urged by a neighbor to help the transients rather than run them off, Soper hired the two to do odd jobs around the complex. Their work was good. He hired them again.
“I started to see them as human beings,” Soper said.
Interestingly, it was after Hannah met Soper, that he and his best friend Donnie Brennan got caught up in the Bumfights videos, lured in with cash, booze and free cigarettes.
When Soper caught wind of what was going on, especially when he saw the word “Bumfight” tattooed across Brennan’s head, he pleaded with the two to stop participating in the videos, and hired a lawyer to sue the filmmakers.
He was by their side for a criminal trial that eventually landed two of the filmmakers in jail and a civil suit that paid at least $300,000 (minus legal fees). And he was there when Hannah had a grand mal seizure and was rushed to a hospital.
A doctor told Hannah he’d be dead in a year if he didn’t stop drinking. Soper drove him to a mortuary and gave him a choice: Get into rehab or pick out your casket.
Now, Hannah works for Soper as an assistant manager for the 62-unit complex where they first met.
Life still presents its temptations for Hannah, but he meets them head-on.
“I loved to get drunk,” Hannah said to the Union Tribune. “I see a TV show like ‘Law & Order,’ where they win a case and go back to the office and have a drink, and I say to myself, ‘Boy, that looks pretty good.’ I can almost taste it. But I don’t ever want to go back there.”
“I always thought dying on the street would be my fate,” he said.