He is a master of economics who, with his judo skills, has been dominating the ground for a decade, considered one of our greatest judoists of all time, supported by numerous awards. In an interview for 011info, Aleksandar Kukolj recalls growing up in challenging times that he brightened by practicing judo, a sport that "shaped" his character. He talks about winning the European champion medal despite a knee injury, with a promise to give his all to return triumphantly from the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. 

You're a Belgradian who wasn't born in Belgrade, right? 

My parents are originally from Bosnia; my father came to Belgrade at a young age and started working for a construction company as a truck driver. By chance, a year and a half before my birth, he got a two-year project in Prague, where I actually came into the world in September 1991. At that time, well-known unrest had already begun. Despite that, we returned to our homeland in Kukolje, the family's birthplace, at the beginning of 1992. However, it soon became clear to my father that there was no life for us there. So, he sent my mother and me to Belgrade, while he stayed to defend our home. But when he saw that it all made no sense and that there was nothing left to fight for, he joined us in the capital. 

Initially, we lived in Kotež. We spent two years there, and honestly, I don't remember that period. Then, my father got accommodation from the company, and we moved. Soon after, the family expanded with the birth of my sister. Looking back, yes, those were extremely difficult times, but I can't complain that something was missing. I had food to eat, clothes to wear, and, most importantly, parental love. It was that love that managed to protect my sister and me from the true horrors of that period. 


Times have changed since then. 

Yes, they certainly have. Today, we live in abundance, and if you have the means, you can buy everything. In the past, you had to save to afford something for your child, like shoes, for example. I draw a lot of inspiration from my parents' struggle for the family. For instance, my father achieved something that someone couldn't do in three lifetimes. He started from scratch multiple times, not by his fault, but due to war, frozen foreign currency savings, or the 2008 economic crisis. 

Now, as a parent myself, I believe that quality individuals arise from basic and fundamental things, not money. And prosperity can be dangerous, especially in sports. As a professional athlete, if you indulge in a vice, such as alcohol consumption, you may not immediately be aware of the consequences because you continue to win based on "past glory." Even when it takes its toll, and you start losing, you may not realize the actual cause because you think, "I'm doing everything the same as before, and I'm not getting results." 

That's why I try not to spoil children too much. Because once you make a mistake, there's no turning back. If you don't like how your hairdresser cut your hair, you immediately see it. However, in raising a child, there's no corrective action because you only see the consequences when he or she grows up. Still, I try not to overdo it in this Spartan way of upbringing, and my wife helps me the most with that. 

When did your love for sports begin? 

As soon as I started school. I am part of the generation that loved to be physically active, whether it was climbing trees or kicking bottles. And then judo was, in fact, an extension of physical education class, where I could further exert myself and show what I was made of. 

I started judo because the Trudbenik club opened in my street. My parents didn't object at all. On the contrary, they were "for it," primarily because they believed it was a healthy environment in a, at that time, unhealthy community. 

Were you immediately recognized as a talent? 

The former professor from the Faculty of Sport, Professor Ćirković, used to say that he only recognizes talent for work. He believes that all other talents can be surpassed by work, while all other talents cannot bring talent for work. Honestly, I follow that thought myself. So, I would say I was agile and nimble. 

As for the results, I matured a bit late. Everyone was stronger than me, mainly due to my late maturation, as they trained longer. But I was a hard worker and, as such, developed some unconventional solutions and techniques, which helped me compete with them. 

When I caught up with them, I still had those solutions that characterize me even today. That's why, as a judoka, I can't be pigeonholed into a judo school. Because I mix schooled techniques with what I adopted along the way, and I know how to put my opponent in a very tricky position during a match. This is perhaps best seen when I'm chasing a result, where that safe barrier falls. Yes, I may not win, but the opponent will definitely have to struggle to maintain the advantage. 


Would you say that judo "shaped" your character? 

Of course. I remember all the wisdom of the coaches. One told me that "every child should be a little hungry and a little cold." In translation, the challenges we face build us as individuals. Because you can't solve a problem if you don't have it first. In judo, the coach gives you problems, and you look for solutions. And that's the only way to progress, both as a person and as an athlete. 

Don't get me wrong; some things were tough for me too. Thoughts like "why do I need all this now" crossed my mind, but from today's perspective, I see it as a serious investment. I think I wouldn't have been shaped into the person I am today if I hadn't overcome those obstacles. The key is not to give up because that's the easiest move you can make. 

You've won numerous medals. Is there still nervousness before a match? 

It's more a form of stress. Simply, my brain doesn't differentiate between competing in cadets and seniors. I experience it the same way in the first match and in the final. But you're prepared for such stresses, and the brain gets used to it. 

By the way, sports as a whole are dangerous, and when you willingly accept sacrificing your own health, it's no wonder stress occurs. And, let's be clear, this is entertainment for the masses. I am very aware that my performances haven't healed anyone, haven't built a house for anyone, and that there are much more important things in life, such as family. 

You mentioned stress. Have you ever worked with a psychologist? 

Absolutely. Since 2015, I have regularly met with Dr. Đorđe Koldžić. However, he is not a psychologist but a psychiatrist in Boston. And these are not sessions, more like friendly conversations. Even when he tells me that he can no longer help me, believe me, that is a huge help. I think he realized that those words affect my self-confidence, and all of that is just a reflection of his genius. 

He is one of the few people who can grasp the depths of my thinking. And when we discuss it, I can better organize things in my head. In fact, I then get the green light from an expert to apply some thoughts that I previously hesitated to use. And that immediately brings results. 


Was there a specific fight that made it clear to you that you would become a successful athlete? 

Perhaps before a moment in the match than the match itself. You see, I am a proponent of "bypassing the rules," that is, I use everything that is legitimate and within the rules of judo, which I affectionately call "trickery." So, I like to use everything that is allowed. 

There were moments when I, under great pressure, very tired, did something in pivotal moments of the fight that simply isn't practiced in training. It's not actually a technique, but a "trick" that sometimes even confuses the referee and definitely outsmarts the opponent. 

At that moment, I realized that I had broken his spirit, but at the same time, even with tremendous fatigue and stress, my mind could react so incredibly that I practically turned the match around. It was one of the signs that I could become great in this sport. 

By the way, I like to say that a judo match is like playing chess on a pulse of 180, while someone is constantly "poking" you in the head, and you really need to go to the toilet. 

Would you say that you've "unlocked" the mentality of a winner? 

Exactly. Honestly, sometimes I don't feel like training. Simply, nothing goes well for me. I literally oscillate, and all sorts of things happen. People throw me to the ground who shouldn't be able to. But as soon as there's a stake or when a score starts to be counted, in other words, when the fight is on, I am usually at my best. 

Who was your toughest opponent? 

While I was competing in the under-90 kg category, by far the toughest opponent was the Russian Mikhail Igolnikov. He is a very strong judoka with specific movements. I couldn't find the right position against him at all. The last match was very tough, but he managed to secure a victory despite being close to disqualification. If we had fought a few more times, I think it would have been only a matter of time before I defeated him. 


Moving up to a higher weight class is a serious challenge that you decided to take on. What led you to that decision? 

Indeed, 10 kg makes a significant difference in this sport. However, transitioning to a higher weight category was somewhat planned for the last third of my career. Several factors worked in my favor. First, I have sufficient height for the 100 kg category. Second, the motivation to challenge myself against new opponents, similar to the way Novak Djokovic faced new players and challenges. I don't think he would play with such passion if he were competing against the same opponents he faced 5-10 years ago. 

Moreover, the pandemic played a role, with competitions being indefinitely canceled. Despite the restrictions, I continued to train. In fact, I mostly lifted weights and occasionally sparred with just one judoka. As time passed, I gained weight. From 93-94 kg, I reached 98 kg. 

We had, in addition to me, another excellent fighter in the under-90 kg category, Nemanja Majdov, and only one of us could compete in the Olympics. 

So, in discussions with coaches, as well as the president of the Judo Federation of Serbia and the president of the Olympic Committee, we agreed that I would move up to the higher weight category. 

How have you performed in the new weight category? 

With the absolute support of all key people, I quickly achieved one of the greatest results in my career, despite an injury. Immediately, I injured my meniscus, which was somewhat fortunate. In sports, it is perhaps the only injury you can plan when to address. So, with that injury, I won a silver medal at the World Championships, participated in the Olympic Games, and only then went "under the knife." 

However, even though the results suggest otherwise, competing in the under-100 kg category was by no means easy. Yes, I was faster and more agile than my opponents, but believe me, those additional 10 kg are quite noticeable. Judo is a contact sport where you "carry" both your weight and the opponent's weight. Thanks to my resourcefulness, I didn't give opponents the opportunity to adapt to me and managed to win several medals at Grand Slams and Grand Prix events. That's how I broke into the top ten on the world ranking list. 


Is the ultimate goal a medal at the Olympic Games? 

Without a doubt, that is the dream. So far, I have won quite a bit multiple times, but an Olympic medal is missing. In the next seven months, all my thoughts are focused on that. Of course, I can't promise a triumphant return, but what I can promise is that I will give it my all, as I always do. 

I would also like to mention that I have tremendous public support in this endeavor. It has never been lacking, and I first experienced it at the Olympic Games in 2016, where I was our only representative in judo. 

The competition will undoubtedly be fierce. 

Absolutely true. In my category, there are several established favorites, but also a few young talents who are almost already beasts. In addition, of course, there are always underdogs who can surprise you. Simply put, judo is an extremely brutal sport. Just 10 seconds, and you go home with your tail between your legs. Only when you reach the quarterfinals do you get a chance for the repechage, and until then, a moment of carelessness can dash all hopes. 

Moreover, judo is not favorable to favorites. To better illustrate, imagine playing tennis with four points needed to win, or one game. A bad first serve, an unforced error, and it's over—you go home. That's roughly the situation in judo, where you fight five different opponents in one day. Hence, you have to be a bit "crazy" because, otherwise, if you soberly assess things, you realize that everything is working against you. 

How do you spend your free time? 

I divide my free time between physical and psychological-spiritual recovery. Speaking of the physical aspect, I regularly go for physical therapy—even now, when I'm not injured. Simply put, it's for prevention. For relaxation, I prefer the sauna and ice, massage, and compression therapy. I can't imagine my professional life without them. 

Also, I love playing soccer, but I rarely dare because it's very easy to get injured. However, the danger of injury is not present in paintball, which I've been playing since 2007. I look forward to it from the moment my friends and I schedule a game. 

As for psychological-spiritual recovery, it is entirely focused on spending time with my wife and children, as well as with parents, sister, friends, and godparents. In fact, I would say that my loved ones are the greatest wealth in life, so I try to be with them every moment. So, I would rather meet someone for coffee than go to some exotic destination. 


What are your plans for the future? 

If we talk about a sports career, I plan to compete in the Olympic Games and for one more year after them. I really don't see myself on the competition tatami after 2025, and it's not because of a lack of will and motivation—it's simply that the body is no longer obedient. 

Of course, I will strive to stay in the sport and give back as much as it has given me. Currently, I'm doing that in my club "Kukolj Team," where I train our young talents. As an introverted type, I would prefer not to be the face of the club but work in the background. However, my achievements are what attracted kids, so it turned out this way. 

Since I have a master's degree in economics, I would like to be more involved in business systems and ventures in the future. I've actually invested all that knowledge in organizing the club, which has quickly become the right place for judo training. 

In any case, I have plenty of options, but it remains to be seen where they will take me.