It's hard to believe Rufus Hannah is the same man pictured in the photo -- the toothless homeless guy with the crazy hair and the word "BUMFIGHT" tattooed across his knuckles, the guy made famous, or infamous, for his starring role in a 2002 video that captured him drunk and performing stunts such as diving headfirst into a stack of milk crates.
Today the U.S. Army veteran is a clean-cut, sharply dressed man with a perfect set of teeth, a friendly face and kind smile. He's even at ease talking about his past in front of an audience, which he now does often.
"I have a wonderful life," the 56-year-old California resident said Wednesday shortly before speaking to a group of young people at the Culinary Training Academy in North Las Vegas. "But being back in Vegas brings back some memories."
It was Hannah's first visit in about a decade. Back then, producers of the controversial "Bumfights" video brought Hannah -- known then as "the stunt bum" -- and a homeless buddy to the valley a few times to film some of their scenes, he said. He and the buddy, Donnie Brennan, spent their days here in a rented apartment drinking large quantities of alcohol provided by the producers. At night, they performed "stunts" for the camera.
Much of those Vegas nights are fuzzy, Hannah said. But he remembers agreeing to spray-paint the bedding of sleeping homeless people. He and Brennan received a few bucks and plenty more alcohol as payment.
The stunts here and in California were often dangerous. There were the milk crates. Hannah also agreed to slam himself headfirst into a wall, be pushed down a flight of stairs while sitting in a shopping cart and rolled down a hill on a skateboard. Hannah still has double-vision related to injuries sustained while performing those stunts. He can't drive.
"It started getting a little scary, a little dangerous," Hannah said. "I had the feeling they (the producers) had plans for stunts that were even worse. I decided I had enough."
That moment came when Hannah was on one of the Vegas trips. For help he called someone who had become an unlikely friend, San Diego businessman Barry Soper.
Soper, the owner of a string of rental-housing complexes, had on occasion hired Hannah and Brennan to do odd jobs for him.
"I saw them as human beings, not just homeless people," Soper, 65, said.
He became concerned for the two friends when they appeared one day with "Bumfight" tattoos -- Hannah's on his knuckles, Brennan's across his forehead. The filmmakers convinced the two to get the tattoos, Hannah said. Soper urged the two men to quit performing the stunts and even contacted a lawyer about suing the filmmakers.
When Hannah called Soper from Las Vegas, the businessman hopped on a plane and brought the two friends back to San Diego. He stood by their sides during a criminal trial that landed the two filmmakers in jail and a civil suit that resulted in a settlement of an undisclosed amount. (It paid at least $300,000 minus legal fees, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.)
And Soper helped convince Hannah -- who spent more than a decade drunk and homeless in California -- to enter a treatment program for veterans in 2002. He has been sober ever since.
"I don't need to drink to handle my problems anymore," Hannah said. "It's always a challenge, but I find other ways."
Hannah now works as the assistant manager of a townhome complex owned by Soper, whom he thinks of as part boss, part rescuer. Soper helped Hannah get his teeth fixed and find a doctor to begin skin treatments that have lightened his knuckle tattoos. Hannah got married in 2009 and has been working on rebuilding relationships with his five grown children.
The two men co-wrote a book about Hannah's life called "A Bum Deal" that was published this year by Sourcebooks, Inc. They came to Las Vegas this week to sign books and speak to a group of young people enrolled in YouthBuild Las Vegas, a vocational training program for high-school dropouts.
Hannah urged the students to take care of themselves and avoid falling into the lifestyle he had escaped. Soper told them they could become anything they want -- even successful business people.
At the end of the presentation, one of the students asked what had become of Hannah's friend, Donnie Brennan.
"He's still on the street," Hannah said.
"We're hoping Donnie will some day have the same success as Rufus," Soper said, adding that such success would come only when Brennan was ready to get sober.
The first person Hannah acknowledges in "A Bum Deal" is his "best friend, Donnie Brennan. May he be safe."
Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at email@example.com or 702-383-0285.