Charles Messina stands with heavyweight Henry Milligan, whom he trained and who won the U.S.A. Amateur Boxing Federation Championship in 1983.
By Pete Kennedy
Charles Messina grew up listening to boxing matches on the radio — iconic fights like Muhammad Ali versus Floyd Patterson — and sparring with his brothers in the back yard. The sport of boxing has been part of his life ever since, and he’s been a driving force behind the boxing scene in Delaware.
“I went through all the stages of boxing,” Messina said. “I was a boxer, a trainer, a manager of professional fighters, and then a promoter.”
Among his proteges was Henry “Hammerin’ Hank” Milligan, a Princeton graduate who became an amateur national champion in 1983.
Messina, 68, of Wilmington, spent 47 years as an electrician, working at places like DuPont and Amtrak. But after work each day, he’d train young fighters at his gym or drive them into Philadelphia to spar.
“Then I’d come home and work on promotions,” he said. “Sometimes I’d be up until 1 in the morning doing that.”
Messina grew up in Wilmington’s Little Italy neighborhood. His father owned Ray’s Delicatessen, a grocery store at 10th and DuPont. Like his mother and three brothers, he spent a lot of time there, stocking shelves, sweeping floors and selling water ice.
In high school, he spent lunch periods in the gym, working the speed bag. At 17, he began training under the prolific Wilmington coach John Thornton at Lore School. He amassed an impressive 16-4 record fighting as a heavyweight under the Wilmington Boxing Club and St. Anthony’s Boxing Club banners.
In the mid-1970s, Messina opened his own gym, training mostly inner-city children at the Jackson Street Boys Club.
“Make sure you want to do this, because you’re going to have to sacrifice and listen to my instructions,” he’d tell potential fighters. “Then we worked on balance, defense, straight jabs, just the basics of boxing. Getting them in shape, so they can last a few rounds.”
In 1978, Messina created Wilmington Fight Promotions and launched a series of amateur and professional events at venues around Delaware. The work included everything from finding advertisers for the program book to drawing up the fight contracts, to managing the door men, bouncers, ticket-takers, ring card girls and usherettes.
Professional fights were easier than amateur ones, he said. Amateurs don’t sign contracts, so a lot gets decided just before the event.
“You weigh them, check their credentials and match them with someone similar to them,” he said. “You’ve got to know who’s lying about their fighter. ‘This guy’s only got two fights.’ How old is he? ‘Only 16.’ He looks 19.”
Around that time, Messina was quoted in a News Journal article saying he was looking for heavyweights, and Henry Milligan, then 23 and working for Delmarva Power, saw it and called him.
At first, Messina was skeptical of the Ivy Leaguer.
“I was expecting someone on the timid side, you know, businessly inclined,” Messina was quoted as saying in the March 1984 issue of Sports Illustrated. “Then I see him and I says, ‘Jeez, with his hands I got myself a modern-day Rocky Marciano.’ “
In 1983, Messina was ringside at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, when Milligan knocked out Olian Alexander to win the U.S.A. Amateur Boxing Federation Championship.
Messina has retired from both his day job and his boxing career. He lives just outside Wilmington city proper with his wife of 29 years, Barbara Kay Carl, whom he met at DuPont.
“I was an electrician in the building. I walked by her office, and a little spark ignited,” he said.
They have two grown daughters, Courtney and Alissa.
These days, he enjoys making wine and crafting game calls for hunters. He’s won awards for both, including a few first-place ribbons at the Wilmington Vendemmia festival.
An avid outdoorsman, he started making turkey calls about 20 years ago when he noticed all the options he could find were mass-produced. His basement is home to dozens of stuffed whitetail deer, an elk, four bears and other trophies.
Messina was on the ballot for the Delaware Sports Museum and Hall of Fame in 2019, after being nominated by notables like Milligan and the elite fighter David Tiberi. The vote was close, but he narrowly missed out.
He still watches big fights on TV but said things have changed since back when he was a kid listening to the blow-by-blow on the radio.
“You have second-class fighters on pay-per-view,” he said. “They’ve watered down the sport of boxing.”