Despite being champion, Masayuki Ito still a blank canvas

Masayuki Ito will take on Jamel Herring on Saturday night, defending his WBO junior lightweight title for the second time. Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images

This much is clear about WBO junior lightweight champion Masayuki Ito and his trainer, Rudy Hernandez: They work extremely well together.

There is a personal chemistry that exists between them, even with a language barrier. It's been a highly successful union, with Ito developing from a boxing novice (who had nary an amateur fight) into a major belt holder. Ito, 28, of Japan, captured the vacant title by outpointing the favored Christopher Diaz over 12 entertaining rounds last July.

According to Hernandez, Ito, who made a successful defense of his title in December by stopping Evgeny Chuprakov in Round 7, has retained the same humble attitude and strong work ethic he had when they first linked up in 2015. But there is one thing that irks the veteran trainer.

"He's so smart, he questions stuff," said Hernandez with a laugh. "Sometimes I don't feel like I should have to explain stuff to him."

Hernandez believes that given his pupil's relative inexperience in the sport, he shouldn't be so inquisitive. But he says it's also a compliment to Ito and his intelligence.

"He comes to work, he knows what's ahead, he's a true professional," said Hernandez, who's a no-nonsense taskmaster in the gym. "[He's] always on time."

Last year, as he appeared on a Top Rank Boxing on ESPN broadcast, Ito was the decided underdog. Now he is the defending titleholder against Jamel Herring for their fight Saturday night in Kissimmee, Florida (ESPN, ESPN Deportes, 10 p.m. ET). A victory over Herring could push Ito toward facing WBC belt holder Miguel Berchelt in a unification fight in the near future.

On his second-to-last day of sparring at the Maywood Boxing Club, about 8 miles south of Los Angeles, Ito goes 10 rounds with a pair of southpaws, the majority of them with fellow Japanese boxer Hirotsugu Yamamoto. Ito seems much more comfortable slipping punches, using head movement and then counterpunching than in the past, when he would rely much more on his high guard to deflect oncoming punches before starting up his own offensive attack.

Overall, it was Ito controlling the action, setting the pace not only with a consistent jab from the outside but also creating offensive opportunities by evading oncoming punches while maintaining his balance to throw punches back. You can see his skill set evolving.

"I'm gaining confidence with all my training with Rudy Hernandez, all the sparring here. I feel as though I'm getting better," Ito said through his assistant trainer, Daisuke Okabe.

"This camp we're a lot more focused on working on his offense and defense. He seems to be combining them a lot better now," said Hernandez, who believes that Ito is still pretty much a blank canvas, given that he's been in the sport for only about a decade, after his basketball-playing days in Japan came to an end.

Hernandez said Ito's confidence grows each camp and that like Drake, "he's come from the bottom to the top, from one day to another and his work ethic goes with it. He hasn't stopped learning and he's getting better."

While there is a certain playfulness in the interactions between boxer and trainer, Hernandez really likes how hard he works and the respect he shows to everybody, from trainers to young prospects and amateur hopefuls that train with him at the gym. Unless you actually knew who he was, you wouldn't know that there was a world champion in their midst.

But Ito (25-1-1, 13 KOs) is also among the friendliest fighters you'll ever come across. His personality and demeanor belie the profession that he has chosen.

"That's why it's humbling," Hernandez said. "The sky's the limit, because at the end of the day, he is a work in progress. And again, he just seems to be getting better and better -- and he likes it."

While the other two champions in the division, Gervonta Davis and Tevin Farmer, play-fight on Twitter, knowing full well that network alliances and boxing politics will keep this matchup from taking place in 2019, Ito-Berchelt is a relatively easy fight to make considering that both boxers have ties to Top Rank.

"I want to fight Berchelt, of course, but now I focus on the Herring fight," Ito said. "But if I should win, and there's interest, I would take a Berchelt fight."

Berchelt (36-1, 32 KOs) recently defended his title in Tucson, Arizona, scoring a sixth-round stoppage of Francisco Vargas in their rematch.

"It was a good fight," Ito said. "He has excellent punches, left jab, uppercut, hook, but he can be hit. I'm confident that I can land on him. I believe that I can win."

According to Carl Moretti, VP of boxing operations for Top Rank, Berchelt will be at ringside to watch Ito fight this weekend against what should be a very motivated challenger.

Emotions should be riding high for Herring, a former Marine boxing on Memorial Day weekend and on his late daughter Ariyanah's birthday. Ariyanah died in 2009 from sudden infant death syndrome.

But a victory for Ito will be more than just a title defense. It's an opportunity to eventually add another belt to his collection.

"I don't know if it will be immediately right after that," Moretti said of a Berchelt fight, "but both camps want it."