In 1991, Kuka took part in his first – and ultimately, only – senior event, the Hungary World Cup in Budapest where he won a bronze medal in the -71kg category.
The future seemed bright but war got in the way of his judo ambitions. “Sadly, that was my first and last competition as a senior because after that, due to the war, all Albanians from Kosovo refused to compete for Yugoslavia,” he says.
So at 19 years of age, his competition career was over. He never lost his love for judo though. “I cannot imagine life without judo,” he says.
Judo runs in his family. One of his brothers, Syla, was his coach while his other brother, Agron, is currently the president of the Kosovo Judo Federation. Together they built a private dojo called Ippon Judo Club.
In 1999, when the war in Kosovo ended, Kuka started coaching kids. Today, the club now boasts over 200 members, among them medallists at the cadet, junior and senior levels.
His most famous student, of course, is Kelmendi, who started judo in early 2000 when she was only eight years old. “She was very serious for her age, very focused from the beginning,” he says. “She was my favourite student. I saw potential in her.”
Kelmendi was keenly observant. Although a natural right hander, during randori she tended to fight leftie. One day, Kuka asked her why she did so and her reply surprised him. “She said she saw me fighting left-sided and concluded that fighting left-sided must be the right way to do things,” he recalls.
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