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Hulk Hogan returns to the WWE after a three-year suspension

Hulk Hogan and his son DJ Nick Hogan, right pose with headliner Laidback Luke before the start of his set at Hogan's Beach in Tampa for their Labor Day Weekend concert series in 2014. [LUIS SANTANA | Times files]
Hulk Hogan and his son DJ Nick Hogan, right pose with headliner Laidback Luke before the start of his set at Hogan's Beach in Tampa for their Labor Day Weekend concert series in 2014. [LUIS SANTANA | Times files]
Published Jul. 16, 2018

A racial tirade caught on tape caused World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. to cut ties with Hulk Hogan in 2015.

But now the WWE has decided that Hogan, who helped turn the company into the biggest wrestling promoter in the world, has done enough to prove he is a changed man.

While Hogan's role with the company has yet to be announced, WWE said Sunday night it is welcoming him back.

"This second chance follows Hogan's numerous public apologies and volunteering to work with young people, where he is helping them learn from his mistake," the WWE said in a statement announcing Hogan would be returned to its Hall of Fame, from which he'd been erased.

The tan, bleached-blonde 64-year-old former grappler whose real name is Terry Bollea said he is grateful for another chance.

"The volume of love and support was overwhelming," he tweeted Sunday night. "I've been praying for this day and I finally feel like I made it back home."

RELATED: Gawker and Hulk Hogan reach settlement in sex tape case

Local civil rights leaders say they plan to hold Hogan accountable for his actions going forward. And fan replies to Hogan's tweet were mixed.

Some were excited that he was again with the WWE. Others posted photo-shopped pictures of Hogan wearing a KKK hood or quoted the comments that led to the suspension.

"I mean, I am a racist, to a point, f------ n------," Hogan said in a video about his daughter Brooke Hogan's dating life. In July 2015, the tape was leaked to — and then released by — the National Enquirer and Radar Online.

Otis Anthony, a diversity and racial inclusion consultant in Tampa, said "negative stereotypes regarding black people are seriously disturbing and say more about him and his limited view of our humanity than it does about us.

"It is not a question of forgiving him,'' Anthony said. "It is hoping someone like him can find a way to become more enlightened. ''

Fred Hearns, a historian of Tampa's civil rights movement, remains offended by Hogan's comments. Still, he said, "I'm more interested in what he will do with the rest of his life and not what he said in the past. Talk is cheap. Actions are loud. If he is truly regretful, how will be conduct himself now?"

The WWE specifically cited Hogan's work with children and his induction into the Boys & Girls Clubs of America Alumni Hall of Fame as reasons for his return.

When inducted in May, Hogan said he wanted to help "kids not make the mistake I made, being at the wrong place at the wrong time or saying the wrong words."

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay, where Hogan serves as a mentor, said he lives up to that promise.

"Learning from mistakes is an important life lesson and one everyone can benefit from," Tampa Bay club CEO Chris Letsos said. "Hulk's visits to our teen centers to address this topic and many others is exactly the type of critical mentoring we strive for in our Clubs."

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Retired area wrestlers who have worked with Hogan agreed it is time to forgive.

"Hulk Hogan is not a racist," said Clearwater's Lanny Poffo, 63, who wrestled as "The Genius" and whose late brother Randy Poffo — known as Randy "Macho Man" Savage" — was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame by Hogan.

"I aspire to be half the humanitarian he is. I love Hulk Hogan."

WWE Hall of Famer and Tampa resident Gerald Brisco, 71, said Hogan did "what was needed to be reinstated to his rightful place among his peers."

And Tampa's Brian Blair, 59, a former Hillsborough County commissioner best known in the wrestling industry as "B. Brian Blair" said, "I believe the wrestling fans have forgiven him. The wrestling industry wouldn't be as big as it is today without the Hulkster."

A graduate of Robinson High School, Hogan rose to fame in the 1980s as the ultimate good guy of what was then the World Wrestling Federation.

RELATED: Gawker and Hulk Hogan reach settlement in sex tape case

During this time, he told kids to say their prayers, vanquished every evil foe in his path and turned what was mainly a New York-based promotion into one that spanned the globe and dominated the industry of scripted grappling.

In 1994 he took his self-proclaimed "24-inch pythons" to the rival World Championship Wrestling until it was purchased by the WWE in 2001.

Hogan returned to the WWE as an in-ring performer from 2005-2007 and again as an ambassador from 2014 until his suspension.

REVIEW: 'Conspiracy' looks at the case of Hulk Hogan's sex tape and an empty victory over Gawker

The video that led to his WWE departure was part of a sex tape recorded in 2006 of Hogan with the wife of radio personality Bubba the Love Sponge Clem.

It was released by Gawker in 2012 but the racial tirade did not become public for another three years.

Hogan settled an invasion of privacy lawsuit against Clem out of court.

A Pinellas County court awarded Hogan $140 million in his lawsuit against Gawker. The two sides later settled for $31 million, which led to the demise of the news-and-gossip site.

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.