SAN JOSE -- Droplets of sweat cascade down Matt Major's face as he thrusts his fists left, then right, into the boxing bag. He grunts in exhaustion, pausing momentarily to wipe his brow.
On the cusp of the fight of his career, and after a day of deep-scrubbing trash cans in downtown, Major is San Jose's Cinderella man. He's reaching for the glass slipper, but knows he might wind up with a pumpkin.
"If you don't know the art of dying, you'll never know the art of living," he said. "If you're not losing in here and getting beat up in here by people who are bigger and better than you, then you're never going to grow."
Major, 30, is familiar with hardship, both inside the cage and out on the street.
While he's training five days a week for his comeback fight on Sept. 13, his first mixed martial arts bout in four years, Major ends each day walking in the dark back to a camp beneath Highway 87 where he sleeps on a sofa bed, using only a blanket for warmth.
The camp is a stark contrast to the cleanliness and order that surround Major most of the day: Tents and a makeshift bathroom are spread out in no particular order over much of the area, while piles of debris are scattered on the dirt floor.
Homelessness is something Major has known off and on for 10 years.
"There is a time and a place to repair everything, and that is where Matt is now," said Ernie Ramirez, owner of Extreme Martial Arts, the gym where Major trains. "And he can do it. If I didn't think he could, I wouldn't be pushing so hard. Where he's at today, he has nothing to lose. He has everything to gain."
In 2004, Major made his way to San Jose to train at the well-known American Kickboxing Academy. With no place to live when he arrived, he took to sleeping above the gym while he trained, cooking his meals on a George Foreman grill.
But Major didn't mind his minimalist lifestyle. He said he was finally where he wanted to be, achieving a dream he had fostered as a kid in New Jersey, when he would peer through a window at a karate class he couldn't afford. He would visit the studio regularly, he said, then go home and practice in his backyard or on the playground after school. When Major watched his first Ultimate Fighting Championship bout on television, he said, he thought he was watching "superheroes."
In 2007, he shocked his opponent and trainers by winning his first professional fight. And he continued to win. He was even selected for the show "Tapout," which chronicled fighters in the UFC. Major became a fixture on the show, with his riotous antics and his Halloween-like costumes, complete with makeup.
But his winning streak halted in 2010, when Major lost two fights. In the second loss, he was knocked out in the second round. Soon after, frustrated and disappointed about his defeats, Major stopped training and then left American Kickboxing Academy.
"He lost his drive, his will to fight," said Major's friend and training partner, Mike Kyle. "He had a couple bad episodes. He was living on the street. It just wasn't good."
Major made ends meet for a time as a personal trainer at a gym in San Jose, using what money he made there to pay his rent. But his personal life soon spiraled out of control when he was arrested for assault, and he ended up serving two years behind bars. By January, he was out of jail but had no money and no place to live. Major admitted his life was in utter ruin. That same month, he was hit by a car while walking in downtown San Jose, and he ended up with a broken leg and chipped tooth.
Major said the accident capped the lowest point of his life, and he realized he needed to turn things around fast. An acquaintance mentioned Downtown Streets Team, a work-experience volunteer program that helps build self-esteem as well as providing assistance with resumes, housing placement and job hunting. On crutches, Major hobbled over to the organization's weekly meeting at Grace Community Church, where he met case manager Maureen Damrel.
Damrel said Major was earnest when he said he was tired of the way things were, that he wanted to change and to get back into fighting.
"He took complete ownership of his life," she said. "He had a lot of obstacles to overcome and he had to push himself. And he did."
Major also reached out to Kyle, who reached out to Ramirez. The veteran instructor agreed to train Major for free. The partnership, all three agree, couldn't be more perfect.
In the few months that Major has been rehabilitating and training, he has gone from slapdash to professional, adapting to a life of discipline and direction. He has also found a group of people who love him unconditionally and who are his biggest supporters, Ramirez said.
"Yeah, I want him to have his own car, to have his own house. I want him to have everything he deserves," Ramirez said. "But to get it, you have to go after it and you have to put in the hard work to get it. No matter what anyone says, you can't be happy waking up on the street every day."
While his camp mates spend much of their day lounging in and around their tents, Major volunteers five days a week at Groundwerx, an organization that partners with Downtown Streets Team to clean areas of downtown San Jose. Major recently interviewed for a paying job with Groundwerx, and both he and Damrel think he has a shot at getting the gig.
Damrel said she believes Major will move on from the life he has led and that he is already inspiring others who participate in Downtown Streets Team programs. She said she can see a change in him that is infectious. Simple things, like the way he makes eye contact when talking with others. Or buying food for someone who couldn't afford it one week.
"He has a lot of life ahead of him," she said. "He's proof that homelessness can happen to anyone. But Matt has gone through it gracefully. His story gives others hope."
Major says a hard life has actually brought out the best in him and the challenges he's faced have shaped him to understand and appreciate his second chance.
Major is ready to come back; he's ready to win.
"I measure myself on a different level," he said. "I will walk into your town and challenge you at noon. And we're going to see whose guns are faster. And it's probably going to be mine."
Contact Katie Nelson at 408-920-5006 and follow her at Twitter.com/katienelson210.
Do you think you want to be a part of Downtown Streets Team?
Weekly meetings are held at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesdays at Grace Community Church, 484 E. San Fernando in San Jose.
Matt Major is set to fight David Mitchell for the middleweight title at the West Coast Fighting Championship on Sept. 13 at the McClellan Conference Center, 5411 Luce Ave. in North Highlands. The doors open at 5 p.m.
Tickets for the event can be purchased at www.westcoastfighting.com