PITTSFIELD — City native and Celebrity Boxing champ Todd "The Punisher" Poulton defended knocking down a protester at a Donald Trump campaign rally on Monday by questioning the purview of freedom of speech.
"Does freedom of speech give you the right to be rude and obnoxious?" Poulton said in an interview. "It's not even about freedom of speech; it's about containing somebody who was being inappropriate at a rally. It was becoming a dangerous situation. I [was a] teacher. I read body language and eyes. I knew as soon as I saw this guy he was going to be a big problem, and was only going to get worse."
In a video recording of the event in Nashua, N.H., Poulton can be seen rushing up several rows of bleachers at Pennichuck Middle School then attempting to wrap the protester in what he called a "basket wrap." The protester falls down and police arrive on short order to escort him out, laughing and smiling all the way.
Led by Trump, the crowd chants "USA" as this is done.
Poulton faced no charges and stayed throughout the rest of the event.
His actions had made international headlines by Wednesday — in part as the latest in a string of violent ejections of protesters from Trump rallies and properties.
"[Trump] explains [his supporters'] anger to them," Williams College Professor of Political Science George E. Marcus said Wednesday, assessing the Trump phenomena and the violence at Trump events. "It makes them OK with expressing it."
But it was more the involvement of the outsized persona known as The Punisher than the events themselves that played the main part in driving headlines.
A lifelong Republican who lives on Crane Avenue, Poulton, 51, sports a "George W. Bush" tattoo on one arm that's a footnote compared to the tribal, Mike Tyson-style ink covering much of the right half of his face.
Poulton disputed some media accounts of his actions in Nashua, which accused him of attempting to "body slam" or throw a punch at the protester.
"Trust me, if 'The Punisher' really threw a punch, [the protester] wouldn't have gone walking out of that place smiling," Poulton said. "They would have had to take him out on a stretcher."
Meanwhile, Peter C. Giftos of Dalton, former executive director of Berkshire County Republican Party, decried "extremism" in Trump's platform.
"I'm not a supporter, and I would not vote for him," Giftos said. "Extremism is usually a loser. Can you picture him sitting with world leaders trying to engage in peaceful negotiations. He would be insulting and end up doing more harm than good."
In a rambling interview, Poulton expressed support for everything from Trump's draconian proposals to deport millions of illegal immigrants to placing guns on the hips of schoolteachers and armed plainclothes agents in the crowd at Trump rallies to protect the real estate mogul.
Describing the long-haired protester he went after on Monday — who had interrupted Trump by chanting, "Fascist!" — Poulton said the man was young with an appearance "like Bon Jovi but less good-looking," and behaved oddly, "probably" having "dropped acid before he came in."
Others heard the protester whispering to the woman he was with about when to interrupt the rally. When he did, Poulton said his "unhinged" shouting badly frightened a nearby elderly couple.
"They were looking like, 'Could somebody please come up here and get this guy?'" Poulton said. "Could I have let the police do their work? Of course. But, as I told one of the police, where were you? I did your job for you. He ignored me, of course."
Poulton added, "It's also about courtesy and rudeness. We've become a very, very rude society. I didn't get brought up that way. My father would have killed me."
Poulton made himself notable as a traveling public speaker who took on mental illness and obsessive-compulsive disorder, from which he suffers, in particular. Prior to that, he spent decades teaching mentally handicapped students at Central Berkshire Regional School District, Hillcrest Educational Centers and Berkshire County Arc.
Using notoriety gained on the speaking circuit, Poulton pursued a childhood dream by launching a fighting career in 2008, which led him to two titles in the Celebrity Boxing circuit and a storied Springfield bout against former Major League Baseball star Jose Canseco — during which The Punisher failed to land a punch.
Provoking Canseco's ire before the match by repeatedly bringing up allegations that the slugger used steroids during his career in baseball, Poulton took numerous punches that "loosened every tooth" in his head, and he ultimately "woke up at Baystate [Medical Center] not even knowing the fight had taken place."
In another fight in Pittsfield, Poulton knocked out former professional wrestling star Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake with a left haymaker.
Poulton drove up to Nashua on Monday morning, arriving at 1 p.m. and gaining access to media because of the fight paraphernalia — two gold-plated championship belts and glossy photographs and T-shirts advertising his Canseco fight — he brought with him. Some of these he intended to give to Trump himself as gifts.
"I see a fighter in Donald Trump," Poulton said. "I'm a fighter, but a different kind of fighter. I said, 'I'm going to bring these two championship belts to help Donald Trump make America great again. There's a lot wrong in this country, and when I see something is wrong I want to be on the team to make it right."
He added, "I did not go there intending anything like that to happen. But it just so happened there was a heckler near The Punisher."
Explaining his support for Trump, Poulton first mentioned Trump's advocacy for the mass deportation of immigrants and next mentioned his business savvy and economic nationalism, saying the General Electric's and Sabic's of the world would not be leaving Pittsfield under a Trump administration.
Ben Taylor, assistant professor of political science at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, also commented on the Trump phenomena, describing his "ardent supporters" as people "never involved in political campaigns before."
"It's good for American politics that he's bringing out people who might not otherwise participate," Taylor said, but the altercations and other disturbances at his events "speak to the type of people attracted to Trump" and his rhetoric.
"We've never in the modern era seen a candidate for the office of the presidency that uses the language Trump uses and remains successful," Taylor said. "It just doesn't happen."
Despite being "all over the map politically" and disorganized in his campaign tactics, Taylor felt Trump's rhetorical style, political neophytism and name recognition were the key features in his success to this point.
Other local Republicans were not so hostile to Trump's influence on the 2016 election cycle as Giftos. Kathy Mickle of Berkshire County Republican Association dismissed criticisms of Trump as "racist" or "fascist."
"Those are just labels people use to incite others against him," Mickle said. "He is saying what a lot of Americans are feeling. I think it's a healthy thing for leaders in our country to say what others have been hesitant to say. He's not my candidate of choice, but I'm glad he's out there saying it."
After the publicity Monday's altercation received, Poulton said people were telling him he might be contacted to play a role in Trump's campaign, possibly as a paid aide. For his part, all he hoped for was a personal note from Trump thanking him for the gifts and support.
"If a guy with a tattoo on his face is really a hot commodity on the campaign trail, maybe Jeb Bush ought to give me a call," Poulton said.