By Alan Baldwin

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - The once-great U.S. men's Olympic boxing team is clambering out of the basement and heading back to where it belongs, coach Billy Walsh said on Sunday as Nico Hernandez collected his light-flyweight bronze.

The first medals ceremony to feature a U.S. male fighter since the 2008 Beijing Games provided a useful moment for the former Irish welterweight and national coach to take stock of the work in progress.

Hired after Ireland won three men's boxing medals at London 2012, and the U.S. drew a blank, Walsh said the results were starting to show.

"We're starting to gain respect again and hopefully it will continue," he said.

In 'Cold War' days, the United States and Communist Cuba were twin powerhouses of amateur boxing with some of the greatest names to grace the ring starting out at amateur level.

Muhammad Ali won the 1960 light-heavyweight title, as Cassius Clay, while Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Henry Tillman and Ray Mercer followed as heavyweight champions.

Leon Spinks won the 1976 light-heavyweight title while brother Michael was middleweight gold medalist at the same Montreal Games and Sugar Ray Leonard won the light-welterweight division.

Times have changed. The last U.S. male boxer to win gold was light-heavyweight Andre Ward in Athens in 2004 and the current team -- the smallest in more than a century -- have no heavyweights of any sort in Rio.

While Claressa Shields won women's middleweight gold in 2012, the last man to medal before Hernandez was heavyweight Deontay Wilder with a bronze in Beijing.

"It's a weight off the back," said Walsh. "Of the five we have left (in the competition), I think there's going to be a few more (medals), and we want to change the color of those.

"We want to bring them on to another level because the USA deserves to be at the top of the sport."

The heavyweight problem is particularly acute and there have been various theories put forward for the decline.

"I suppose it's a testament to the way the sport is going in the United States," said Walsh. "Hopefully we're going to change that and come Tokyo (in 2020) we'll have a really good squad and the full team hopefully."

He said the main problem was the style the U.S. amateur heavyweights were fighting with, having been schooled with professionals.

"It's like a marathon runner and a sprinter," said Walsh. "It (Olympic boxing) is over three rounds and you've got to be more skilful and tactical at points scoring and not trying to kill fellas and knock 'em out.

"Once they learn the skills of that, they have the ability and the the end of the day, this game is very simple: You've got to hit the fella more than he hits you. That's it."

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Neil Robinson)