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Sushil versus Narsingh - Anatomy of a fight

ESPN

Before the year is out there will be two films released with Indian wrestling at their centre, involving two of India's biggest film stars. Sultan's bout with the box office is up first in July, the film a piece of fiction, rumoured to essentially be a love story. Dangal, due for release after the Rio Olympic Games, is a biopic about Mahavir Phogat, the father who sent two wrestler-daughters to the Olympics. Any films involving the two Khans should grab everyone's attention - including India's wrestling community - well before release. This summer, though, the Khans have been upstaged.

In between Sultan and Dangal stood real life, with a subplot older, deeper and broader than what the two movies will offer, more layered than any scriptwriter could create. Like Indian wrestling or kushti itself, rising from antiquity. Spinning out memories of the great fighters of epic mythology who would butt heads and lock limbs in bouts running into hours, days, aeons.

The prelude in real life was about a dangal that was waiting to happen - and, weeks later, is still waiting. From early April or so, it was believed that Sushil Kumar and Narsingh Yadav would go mano a mano, a "trial bout" for the ultimate, winner-take-all prize: the 74kg-class golden ticket to Rio.

Had it been a TV drama, it would have been called the Champion versus the Contender; even though it was the champion, double Olympic medalist Sushil, who contended that he deserved a trial.

From the outside, it looks biopic material: chiaroscuro stills, slow-mo fight sequences, Eye of the Tiger music and deep booming voice-overs. Except Sushil v Narsingh is less blockbuster movie, more a novel. Nuanced and layered, hard to disentangle using mere cinematic smoke and mirrors.

Sushil III is not Rocky IV, the champion's last stand against some brash, trash-talking punk. This is an Indian sporting hero up against the drive and hunger of a younger man. Narsingh is 26, a year older than Sushil was in Beijing - and Rio would be his second Olympics, like Beijing 2008 was to Sushil.

Sushil versus Narsingh, Narsingh versus Sushil sent truths, rumours, secrets, lies and the two wrestlers themselves heading inexorably towards a potential confrontation. What took place instead, though, was frenzied activity on the margins. Social media was turned into crowd support for Sushil, superstars were mustered to take sides, the administrators were pinned in the spotlight and froze. The courts were rattled but have refused to settle into an unsolicited headlock.

Sushil and Narsingh belong to two different sporting generations separated by Olympic medals. The older lit a torch, the younger was inspired but bold enough to clear his throat and say, respect, thank you but we will now carry this forward, stand aside, please.

It has been an age that Indian wrestling rang any bells in India's globalised English-speaking upwardly-mobile classes. Wrestling men - large, square, thick-necked and cauliflower-eared - will chuckle at the notion and say in their rolling, rustic accents that it had never been so. Their sport and its practitioners were always considered far too rural, antediluvian.

This dilemma has knotted itself tightly around wider public imagination because it involves India's most successful Olympic athlete. Over an 18-year competitive career, Sushil Kumar has owned a sixth sense of responding to an occasion and, through it, knowing how "bada" (big, as the wrestlers call them) medals are won. His Olympic silver and bronze have become mile-markers in Indian sport, standards that others aspiring to athletic achievement will be measured against. In between the Beijing bronze and London silver, Sushil was also to become India's first freestyle wrestling world champion in 2010. He beat a Russian fighter Alan Gogayev in Moscow in the 66kg final, his weight category for the past 11 years.

It is the sudden vanishing of that particular category that has brought Indian wrestling to this unsavoury face-off. The 66kg lightweight was one of two weight classes dropped from the men's competition after the London Olympics to accommodate more categories for the women.

Sushil's new class - the 74kg welterweight - has been Narsingh's for the past ten years, starting with the 2006 Doha Asian Games. It is in this category that Narsingh won his first major medal, silver in the 2007 Commonwealth Championships, and everything that has followed since: gold in the 2010 Asian Championships and Asian and Commonwealth Games medals in 2014. And it is in this category that Narsingh the welterweight won his world championship medal in Las Vegas 2015 and earned Indian wrestling a 74kg quota or licence (to use United World Wrestling's vocabulary) for Rio.

This is the epicentre of the tremors rippling through Indian wrestling. The "quota" entitles that country to send only one - and only one - wrestler in that weight class to compete at the Olympics. In India, it's usually the man who wins the quota who gets to compete at the Olympics. Other countries hold trials closer to the Olympics and send the fittest and most in-form candidate in that weight category. The Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) has no policy put down in black and white about quota-winners and who gets to go. Amorphous selectorial choices in the past have been dotted by low-level controversies and a court case or two.

"You can't send someone to the Olympics just by looking at his medals. If you don't compete anywhere, you want to go directly to an Olympics and say, now give me a trial, that's wrong."

Narsingh Yadav

Yet nothing previously has involved an Olympic medallist, for the simple reason that, for more than half a century, Indian wrestling did not have an Olympic medallist. Sushil's medals are now making his case.

The issue is that there isn't much else to that case; certainly not a recent track record. Since switching his weight category in 2013, Sushil has competed in two events in the summer of 2014, the City of Sassari International in Italy and the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, winning silver and gold. But nothing since, not even the Pro Wrestling League. He chose not to compete at the 2015 Las Vegas world championship due to a shoulder injury, for which he had surgery, and most recently trained in Georgia, with their Olympic squad.

Sushil has sought a trial on the basis of what transpired before August 2014, Narsingh has stood against it because of what has followed since. He fights his corner because of where he has come from, Sushil from where he has been.

The word Sushil uses to describe what he has done - other than compete - in the months leading to Rio is tapasya. It contains spiritual and physical meanings, involving a rigorous dedication to rules as part of a devotion to a singular cause. It could even mean penance, perhaps of the athletic kind. It is an impressive, careful choice of word to represent his belief. Narsingh's description of Sushil's argument is simpler: galat. Wrong.

The Path of the Pehelwan

The two Indian wrestling films out this year come from radically opposite film-making oeuvres of the two Khans, the front-bencher, mass appeal of Salman and the higher-brow ruminations of his filmic alter-ego Aamir. Sushil and Narsingh carry no such elemental contradictions. They answer to the same ethos and share a pedigree from an unbroken line of wrestlers drawn from across the country for centuries, faithful to a common fraternity.

They belong, says Kaka Pawar, the former Indian international wrestler, like all wrestlers do, to homes far removed from affluence. Sushil's father drove a bus in Delhi for the government-run telecom company MTNL, while Narsingh's father reared cattle in a Mumbai suburb and distributed milk. Wrestling, though, formed as much a part of their environment as austerity. Their fathers and elder brothers wrestled and they were spotted as 10-11 year olds by coaches who saw the first flickers of talent: natural movement, footwork, agility, balance, hand-leg coordination. Sushil was spotted by Satpal Singh - or, as Sushil refers to him, Padamshri Mahabali Shri Satpalji; he is now Sushil's father-in-law. Narsingh remembers Bharat Yadav from a small mitti (mud) akhara in suburban Mumbai and Jagmal Singh, the Sports Authority of India coach who brought him onto the mat and competitive wrestling.

Their current situation, though, has marked them as distinctly apart. Sushil walks into a room surrounded and trailed by an entourage of around eight, confident in his own skin yet courteous, considerate, willing to share of himself. When he sits down to talk, others gather around the aura of a man who switches his address from one to many with the sweep of a measured smile. Narsingh's manner is compressed around himself. He is a little diffident, shy yet unafraid of standing up for what he says - with scattergun, low-voiced certainty and vehemence - is his, earned by right.

Jagmal is even pained to talk about it, "We don't want to confront. We won't say those things to Sushil." He says Narsingh used to consider Sushil his idol. "He wants to be like him and respects him a lot. Whenever anyone asks him who do you want to be like he says, 'I want to be like Sushil', but a weight category matters, doesn't it?"

Narsingh, though, is far ahead of the polite chit-chat. "Right from the start," and his coach is not around to hear him say this, "I don't compare myself to anyone. I want only to better myself and that's what I focus on. I don't think about who else is doing what, who is good and who is not. I only think that I should do better than I have done so that I can go outside the country, and win medals for my country in a big competition." He burns to do better in the biggest, leave the memory of London 2012 - where he lost in the first round - behind him. "The Olympics look massive and you want to be there. When I lost in London and looked around me and saw others winning medals, I felt an emptiness. In my heart. I thought Nahin yaar, we should do better, win a medal for the country, feel good when you see your flag go up. That became a goal in my head."

It began with him targeting the first qualifying competition for Rio, the 2015 World Championships in Las Vegas. " I thought if I could make Olympic qualification right there, I'd get time to prepare for Rio, then I can go there and get a gold."

It is Sushil whose medals have given Indian wrestlers, Narsingh included, such breadth of desire. Former wrestling international Jagdish Kaliraman, an older teammate when Sushil made his world championship debut in New York in 2003, says, "At that time, we never thought we could win a medal at the Olympics. India was not used to our sportsmen winning Olympic medals . It was a dream, we wondered how we could possibly accomplish that."

"You practice that, you train over and over again. Even when you're having a meal, it's on your mind. You close your eyes and you think about it, see it being done."

Sushil Kumar

Sushil and Yogeshwar Dutt, the London Olympics bronze-medal winning poetry-writing featherweight, have unlocked an invisible door. "The entire scenario has changed over the last ten years," says Kaliraman, now a coach. "People's thinking has changed, they are now very caring and have a different attitude towards wrestlers and other sportsmen also. It's come from the medals."

What has also changed in India is the understanding that an Olympic medal is not an elusive yearning but a tangible project. "You need a team of five, six ten people for someone to win a medal at the Asian Games or the Olympics. It's teamwork now, not a single person's journey from a village to an Olympic medal. That romantic story is over."

Maybe the tapasya that Sushil was referring to was not a hermit's solitary penance of self-denial, but the unshakeable rigour, control and discipline over wrestling's sciences and arts, with every tool of the trade at his disposal.

In their formative years in kushti, what the greatest wrestlers absorb is a tunnel vision of purpose. In the training hall of the Sports Authority of India's northern regional centre in Sonepat, there is a small shrine to the wrestlers' god Hanuman. When every fighter walks in to morning training, he first heads to the shrine, bows to Hanuman, mutters a small prayer and only then lace up his shoes and stretch his spine. It is the path of the pehelwan: Hanuman-worship, vegetarianism, the celibate life to which the weary urban watcher will roll their eyes. The strength of such faith exists beyond the realm of our understanding, but it remains instantly recognisable.

Ask Sushil what he thought about being in New York, the global capital, as a young wrestler in 2003 and he says the city didn't hold his attention. "The first time I travelled outside the country was to Manchester in the junior worlds. My final bout was against a Polish wrestler who was a defending champion. I didn't think who I was competing against, or where I was. My only thought was if I trained well, I would get a good result." He was to defeat Krystian Brzozowski and win the 45kg world cadet title.

In New York, at his first senior worlds he finished fourth, losing to the eventual world champion Arif Abdullaev by a single point, a performance that, Kaliraman said, astonished his teammates. "The Indian squad lost most of their bouts, but Sushil stood out. As seniors we realised this was a wrestler to take seriously, because he had shown ability."

Twelve years later Narsingh was to find himself in another world championship with Olympic qualification in sight. It was in Las Vegas, a city built around bright lights and loose cash, but all Narsingh saw in the distance was Rio. "The Olympics feel different, it is bigger than even the world championships. That's why everyone wants it. Everyone turns up from everywhere, having trained like crazy, to the maximum and wants to win at any cost. It is a very high level of competition."

The Olympics, Narsingh says, has the power to be the "turning point" in his life. "Win a medal there and your life changes." As it did for Sushil, whose shadow now sits over the shoulder of every Indian wrestler who will go to Rio.

The Weight of a Shadow

Never mind the shadow, Narsingh today can't shake off the real thing. At the SAI's Northern Regional Centre in Sonepat, just outside Delhi, he trains every morning in the Sushil Kumar-Yogeshwar Dutt Hall. As he lines up to do "warm-up" exercises that would make other athletes go pale - including cartwheels and forward and backward somersault - Sushil's photographs with his medals and his moves stare down at him the walls around the six training mats.

Today, getting to the community dining hall means going past a small but carefully landscaped garden, called the Sushil Kumar Udyan (park). In the days before fame, Sushil would take a breather between training and meals, sitting on a broken bench overlooking what used to be a dumpyard. The dumpyard is now manicured, saplings growing into trees that offer shade to rest and day-dream.

There was a time that Narsingh and Sushil joked, sparred and enjoyed the normal equation of stalwart and aspirant. Narsingh knew that while Sushil shared the gym with the other wrestlers, he was entitled to having his own training hall created above the main administrative block. He is entitled to anything, in fact, but his quota place.

Narsingh doesn't seem overawed by Sushil's omnipresence. Take the simple fact of how he addresses Sushil. Young wrestlers call each other bhaiya (brother), seniors are referred to by the third-person suffix "pehelwan" and the highest form of respect is Pehelwanji. In Sonepat, there are only two "Pehelwanjis" - Yogeshwar and Sushil.

So Narsingh isn't big on the honorifics. "I accept that Sushil is a very big name, that is fine, he has won a lot. But you can't send someone to the Olympics just by looking at his medals. It is a question of performance - I'm the one went to the world championship, won a medal and qualified for the Olympics. That's the first time it has happened... If you don't compete anywhere, you want to go directly to an Olympics and say, now give me a trial, that's wrong. " Sushil has heard this before and smiles his man-of-the-people smile, making his point with a subtle but cutting lightness. He speaks as though he is sparring with a junior, toying with him, setting him up for the kill. "I have this habit," he starts off, "that I give my juniors many, many chances. Who knows, I could have competed in the World Championships after the Commonwealth Games, and not given a chance (to youngsters like Narsingh)."

He then lists the names of many Indians going to Rio who have had to go through trials - shooter and Beijing gold medallist Abhinav Bindra and archer Deepika Kumari are the most promiment. "The best from India, have to show their performance again and say that yes, I am ready for the Olympics. And that person is the one who goes to the Games."

Then he swoops in. He talks about his bouts against Narsingh, claiming there have been two (ESPN was unable to verify this and Narsingh's camp says they have faced each other only once, ten years ago). "I've beaten him both times, one was in a national wrestling competition about three-four years ago. Then once was when I was in the 66kgs category and he went to 84kg. So I competed in one tournament in the 84kg category, I had to compete seeing the set-up of my team so I beat him in that as well."

Once again, it is Sushil's past career that makes the argument.

The Economy of Effective Movement

When studying young wrestlers, coaches look for presence of mind, foot speed and adaptability. Of the wrestler's ability to work within a zero radius area through his stance. As Kaliraman describes it, "to make his body bigger or smaller." To crouch low and further away from the reach of a bigger opponent or to quickly transfer his weight in his stance and stand taller against someone small. It is not so much a visual trick as it is a tactical option of changing positions over a very short period of time in a small physical space. Of either looking smaller to dodge or bigger to block.

It is what happened to both Sushil and Narsingh when the rumour of their impending trial went from a growing grumble to full-on verbal sparring. Pushed into a corner created by the sum of his circumstances, Sushil drew himself to the height of his achievement. Buffeted by the tides but secure in his arguments, Narsingh stayed low, remained forceful and didn't lose ground. These were stylistically varied but equally dangerous competitors.

Kushti contains rich lore and mythology, starting with lyrical metaphors for a wrestler's stance (the paintra) which then morphs and choreographs into moves (daon/ daav), counter-moves (pench) and saves/defence (kaat/ todh). Joseph Alter's pioneering book The Wrestler's Body speaks of the north Indian wrestler in his traditional mitti/ mud akhara, when he says, "The art of wrestling is to achieve an economy of effective motion." It still holds on the Olympic mat but must be accompanied by speed. "Freestyle wrestling is very simple," Kaliraman says. "You have to score points and to do so, you have to get hold of the other guys's legs and see that he doesn't get hold of yours. Freestyle wrestling starts and ends there."

Narsingh's coach Jagmal Singh hasn't counted the number of daavs or pench - there are more than 500, some say - but believes that there must be more technical variations in wrestling than in any other sport. Kaka Pawar, now a Pune-based coach, says, "Every wrestler has one move/ daav with thousands of variations/ todh. That one move becomes the wrestler's fundamental, singular piece of choreography, which, when pulled off at the right time, cannot be countered."

Sushil and Narsingh have their own, which takes their personalities and flips them over. Sushil is a prowler seeking openings, probing doubts and weaknesses while waiting for his moment. His semi-final in the 2012 London Olympics is a demonstration of his skill, thinking and ability to lock onto his mastermove. It is called the Irani daav or the Iktangi (one leg), a ground move where the attacker pins his opponent underneath him, locks back one of his opponent's legs with his own and exerts increasing pressure on his lower back and neck.

In London, Sushil trailed Kazakhstan's Akzhurek Tanatarov 0-3, with a little over a minute of the final round left. He pushed forward and took Tanatarov down; in the brief moment as Tanatarov twisted himself off his back, Sushil snapped Tanatarov's right leg back into the jaws of his double knee-hold. The Kazakh's body was under pressure, he claimed he had been bitten, "grazed" said the Indians, but the points spun towards Sushil's attack which led to the Kazakh being lifted off the ground and Sushil earning a place in an Olympic final.

Sushil says, "You practice that, you train over and over again. That move - getting to it - is in your mind all the time. Even when you're having a meal, it's on your mind. You close your eyes and you think about it, see it being done. See it being done correctly, and how many combinations of moves you need to get to that point. Correctly. That is the kind of training you get into."

Narsingh is a counter attacker, a creature of swift surprise - like he demonstrated against Zelimkhan Khadijev of France during his bronze medal bout at the World Championships in Las Vegas that won India the 74kg quota for Rio. It is called a dhaak and he pulled it off when deep in a hole, trailing 4-12 with less than a minute left of his quarter-final bout. The YouTube video shows the two in a countdown impasse of sorts, arms gripped, short bursts of movement. Khadijev keeps moving backwards for 15 seconds. Then in, the blink of an eye, Narsingh feints and drops low on his inside. Khadijev is then rolled over on Narsingh's side, legs in the air, and shoulders hitting the ground, staying pinned. In all of four seconds, Narsingh went from 4-12 down and into the world championship semi-final with a quota slot in Rio.

Narsingh remembers that moment. "You're tired but you have to be in the present, have the presence of mind. Use the correct technique at the correct time. Only then do you get the points you need... The points lead was huge - in my mind, I knew that I could only win with a direct fall." He describes the last 20 seconds: "The French wrestler was backing away a lot - and if I kept pushing him, he would keep going which wouldn't be of use to me. I stayed in my position, which gave him the impression I'd given up and he sort of relaxed." It is when he pulled off what coach Jagmal Singh, who began working with him 16 years ago, his "do or die move." Pawar says he has another signature move, the bagal doob, in which he switches from arms gripped together into a dipping feint under the rival's arm, ending up at his opponent's back, locking down the opponent's freedom of movement by grabbing him from behind.

Jagmal says that the dhaak is quintessentially a move from kushti but not so much in Olympic competition. "It's very much a part of our wrestling - you will see a lot of the dhaak in the dangals but not much at the Olympic level because no one comes that close... we practice it all the same because this is the do or die. Had Narsingh's arm slipped at the world championship he could've ended up below his opponent and lost points. He pulled it off perfectly."

The Hunger of a Heritage

In Sushil's and Narsingh's entanglements lies the story of the shifting powercentres of wrestling in independent India. On the one hand the centrifugal force that pulls in fighters from around the National Capital Region and rural Haryana, in akharas and more modern schools, and on the other the state of Maharashtra's own wrestling pedigree - with its roots in its old royalty, new money and a pride that is both encrusted and simmering.

Wrestling historian Ashokrao Jadhav from Talegaon in Maharashtra recounts that state's heritage. Two wrestlers from here - featherweight Dinkar Shinde and middleweight KP Nawale - were part of the first Indian team to the Olympics, in Antwerp 1920. And who could forget that India's first individual Olympic medallist, Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav, was a wrestler from Maharashtra? From Goleshwar village, in Satara district, where they welcomed him home from Helsinki in 1952 with a procession of 151 bullock carts. Wrestling blogger Milind Manugade remembers his guru's words. "He looked at us and said every student in front of him was the great grandson of a wrestler. Wrestling was alive in every household in our state."

"Ten years ago, Sushil could have been Narsingh setting out with the mission of trying to change his life. Ten years from now, Narsingh could be Sushil all over again."

Kaka Pawar is quick to accept that the Olympic medals earned by Sushil and Dutt have led to a growing number of students turning up at his coaching school in Katraj, outside Pune. "We have wrestlers in house but more of the talent is in Haryana... there is a great environment there. Every parent and child seems to want to turn to wrestling for better lives, livelihood."

But they will not stand for their boy Narsingh Yadav - so what if he was born in Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, his wrestler father Pancham one of thousands of economic migrants to Mumbai -being blindsided and short changed. They've already seen it happen to Rahul Aware, another Olympic contender, the son of farmers from Beed, in the dry heart of the state. Aware missed out on Olympic contention in the 57kg category, finishing third in the Asian Olympic qualification competition held in Kazakhstan in March 2016. Only the two finalists got in. Aware then had two more qualification tournaments over the next months, in Mongolia where the top three would qualify and Istanbul (finalists only). Rather than get another chance, Aware was sidelined, his closest rival and national 57kg champ Sandeep Tomar chosen to head out to Mongolia and have a go at an easier qualification event. Tomar grabbed his chance and qualified through Mongolia. Here again, were two wrestlers clashing over one weight; the national 61kg champ Aware scaling down to the Olympic 57kg, Tomar, earlier a 55kg wrestler moved up to 57kgs in January 2014.

The shenanigans have left Pawar angry. "What can Aware do now? The man who beat everyone in your own trials, you left him out. He defeated Tomar in the Pro Wrestling competition and can defeat Tomar today and tomorrow. When India has a chance to get a medal, these politicians do such things. There is politics behind every post in our sports administration. Indian sport needs to free these positions of the politicians. Then our kids can win every medal in every sport."

Should the Wrestling Federation of India give Sushil a trial going by his previous record, Aware could easily demand one too. Manugade says, "For the last 25 years, the WFI has been in control of the Delhi-UP wallahs. What will someone like Aware do? Or Narsingh. They think, I am still young I have age on my side, why should I mess with them? They'll punish me, get me caught for doping, ban me for three of your years. So our boys from Maharashtra keep quiet."

But these two "lobbies" also live a double-helixed life, the historian Jadhav reveals. In the early 20th century, dozens of wrestlers would travel down to the princely state of Kolhapur, a stronghold of pre-independence Indian wrestling. The languages intermingled - Maharashtra's wrestling vocabulary refers to a wrestling competition not as a dangal, but an akhara. It is the word which, in the north, unequivocally refers to a wrestling school. A wrestling school in Maharashtra is called a "talim," an Urdu or Persian word for education. Like the two wrestling kingdoms they represent, it is no wonder Sushil and Narsingh are not easily separated.

*****

There are several dispassionate ways to deal with this dilemma - by citing the rule book that the WFI dips into now and then, studying the competition in the 74kg class and understanding that no matter who goes to Rio, a medal is not a given. The tumult around the trial must carry its consequences. Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius would recognise Sushil v Narsingh as inevitable. "The art of true living in this world," he is known to have said around 1800 years ago, "is more like a wrestler's than a dancer's."

Another way of sorting out the jumble of Sushil and Narsingh is to look at them not as two wrestlers, but one going through varying stages of a career. Ten years ago, Sushil could have been Narsingh setting out with the mission of trying to change his life. Ten years from now, Narsingh could be Sushil all over again. A great fighter with an ageing body but sharper in his mind than he has ever been, making a tiny but perhaps fatal miscalculation.

What if Sushil had gambled with Las Vegas? After all, Yogeshwar made the trip despite an injury scare. He didn't get past the medical exam but qualified for Rio in the next tournament. In Vegas, Narsingh stepped in to fill the vacuum left by Sushil's absence and today will not concede an inch. Sushil is today pitched into middle of a wrestling bout being played out in slow motion.

When discussing their trade, fighters tend to be full of parables, they talk about how wrestling is all about experience. About the quality of decisions taken when leading or trailing. It is not that moves/ daavs that are successful in themselves; it is their timing that makes them so. Yogeshwar offers this: "Lage daav ki koi kaat nahin." There is no save against a successful, well-timed move. Make that move a micro-second late? Yogeshwar laughs and says, "har daav ki kaat hai." Every move can be blocked. This was the only way the story had to go.

The ambitions of Sushil and the dreams of Narsingh. This wasn't about their common ground, the sport to which either man is deeply committed. It was about the 1m ring that marks the dead centre of a wrestling mat, its heart which two men may crouch around but only one can stand over. Both men wanted it. They are wrestlers. They couldn't have dealt with this in any other way.