hulk

Hulk Hogan was fired from WWE in July 2015 after an audio of him using racial slurs became public. WWE Photo

Hulk Hogan, one of the most successful figures in WWE history, appears to be closer to receiving forgiveness than he has been in several years.

Hogan was wiped from WWE history three years ago after audio emerged of him on a racist rant. But his recent show-stealing appearance on HBO’s Andre The Giant documentary has prompted speculation that Hogan and WWE could be working on a deal to bring back the Hulkster after a lengthy banishment from the company.

A report by TMZ indicated that the two sides have been in talks regarding the former six-time world champion’s possible return. But, according to mutual agreement by both sides, the return has to be done “the right way.”

And credit Hogan, one of the greatest “workers” in the history of the business, for saying all the right things to atone for his behavior and get back into the good graces of the company.

While some of Hogan’s out-of-ring behavior over the years has put him on shaky ground with WWE, it was a profane, racist tirade about his daughter’s dating life that was caught on tape that resulted in his excommunication in 2015. Hogan liberally used the N-word during the rant that was leaked by the National Enquirer.

It appeared that the negative fallout from the scandalous sex tape, which was published by Gawker, was too much for WWE to handle, and the company wiped its hands clean of Hogan and the controversy that followed him.

Until recently, the name Hulk Hogan has been persona non grata in WWE circles. Hogan apologized, but the company moved swiftly to terminate his contract, remove his merchandise from its online shop, and scrub him from several online platforms. The company said in a statement at the time that it was “committed to embracing and celebrating individuals from all backgrounds as demonstrated by the diversity of our employees, performers and fans worldwide.”

In the aftermath, WWE also went out of its way not to mention the disgraced wrestling icon on its programming. It seemed such an inglorious end to the career of a mega-star who helped jump-start Vince McMahon’s wrestling juggernaut three decades earlier.

And while Hogan may have been out of the wrestling picture, there was legal business to settle. After initially being awarded an eye-popping $140 million in an invasion of privacy lawsuit, Hogan would later settle with Gawker, which filed for bankruptcy as a result of the judgment, for $31 million.

Since that time, slowly but surely, Hogan began to repair his tarnished image. There has been a softening on WWE’s hardline stance, and sources now say that there’s a good chance that the 64-year-old Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, could return to WWE, although it’s not known in what capacity. Following an interview last weekend on the Philadelphia-based Howard Eskin Show, the host intimated off the air that Hogan could be returning to the ring.

“The Hulkster, he really is a good guy and we didn’t talk about it because it’s not done yet but it’s all but done, he’s coming back to the WWE and from what I understand, and again, we didn't talk about it, he’s going to wrestle again at an event.”

Hampered by knee and back injuries at the time, Hogan’s last televised match was seven years ago against Sting at Impact Wrestling’s Bound for Glory event. He last appeared on WWE television at WrestleMania 31 where he reunited with former NWO partners Kevin Nash and Scott Hall.

Learning from mistakes

Hogan scored major points for his recent induction speech at the Boys & Girls Club’s alumni Hall of Fame ceremony in San Diego, where he spoke about having the chance to help kids not make the same mistakes he's made. Hogan also spoke about the infamous rant, and his remorse appeared to be genuine.

“With this foundation, I can be accountable. I can learn from my mistakes and I can move forward,” said Hogan, who was honored in recognition of his work with children throughout his career. “And what’s so cool now is working with the Boys Club, I have a chance to help these kids not make the mistake I made, being at the wrong place at the wrong time or saying the wrong words.”

As speculation mounted, WWE felt obliged to issue a cautionary statement regarding the story, commending him for his work but emphasizing that he wasn’t part of the company.

“WWE applauds the work Hulk Hogan is doing with Boys & Girls Clubs of America to turn what was a negative into a positive by helping young people learn from his mistake. While he has taken many steps in the right direction since we parted ways, Hogan is not currently under contract to WWE.”

Celebrity gossip website TMZ later reported that Hogan and “high-ranking WWE officials have been in touch recently and it’s been positive.”

WWE “wants to bring (Hogan) back into the fold,” but also wants to make sure it’s done “the right way,” given the inflammatory nature of his 2015 departure.

The company also wants to make sure fans and wrestlers are all willing to welcome him back with open arms. They want to remain sensitive to those who were offended by his racist comments.

Recently enshrined Hall of Famer Mark Henry is one of many in the WWE camp who advocates a Hogan return, with the stipulation that he apologizes to the African-American wrestlers in the company for his bigoted comments made public during the Gawker trial. “The consensus is there's a lot of work to be done to heal that wound and fix that wall,” says Henry.

It’s a stance that Hogan wholeheartedly agrees with. He even wants to take his contrition an extra step.

“I totally agree with him, not to the black wrestlers, to all the wrestlers,” said Hogan. “What I said was way out of line and I’m forever sorry for that.”

WWE also received a pro-Hogan nudge during its recent tour of Saudi Arabia, where a member of the Saudi royal family asked for Hogan to participate in the Greatest Royal Rumble event.

While that didn’t happen (Hogan wasn’t at the show), the request reportedly has led to more talks between the two sides. Coming off its inaugural event in Saudi Arabia, part of a 10-year deal with the kingdom, the addition of a Hulk Hogan would most surely be an attractive bargaining chip for WWE’s global marketing machine.

Rebuilding bridges

While time heals all wounds, WWE is hoping to bring Hogan back into the fold sooner rather than later. But the company is still rightfully concerned about social reaction and any potential sponsor backlash around the Hulkster’s return.

Earlier this year the company quickly acted when accusations were levied against one of its Hall of Famers. Fan backlash and a social media firestorm led to sponsor Snickers pressuring the promotion to change the name of a women’s Wrestlemania battle royal in The Fabulous Moolah’s name, although many later criticized the company for its action, claiming the allegations against the late Lillian Ellison were unfounded and unsubstantiated.

WWE could be bracing for a similar onslaught if Hogan returns.

Helping Hogan’s cause is a legion of performers who have spoken in his defense.

Booker T (Booker Huffman), who credits Hogan with helping him early in his career, says it’s time to move forward.

“The only thing Hogan can do is apologize, atone for it, and we move forward,” Booker said during a recent episode of his Heated Conversations podcast. “Everyone deserves a second chance … that’s just the way I am.”

Booker also said that he is willing to give Hogan a pass on the use of a racially charged word that, for better or worse, has become part of the slang lexicon.

“I’m taking that ‘word’ and putting it over to the side, and let that man take his rightful place back, which is in this business,” said Booker. “I’m not going to take that away from him. I’m not going to sit here and say ‘No, he should be blackballed or blacklisted from the game, forevermore, for saying something a lot of us say on a daily basis. I don’t myself, but a lot of us do. Let this man who has done so much for the wrestling business truly take his rightful place back in the WWE.”

Former WCW and WWE world champion Bill Goldberg discussed the issue on the In This Corner podcast with CBS Sports’ Brian Campbell.

“I think everybody deserves a second chance. I think you put (Hogan) in the locker room and give him the floor and let him speak his mind,” said Goldberg. “That’s what he deserves. Who knows what happens from there, but it’s not for me to say by any means. I can just give you my opinion and say that he deserves the floor and who knows where it goes from there."

Hogan has pleaded his case numerous times and asked for forgiveness.

“It’s probably the stupidest thing I ever said,” Hogan said in a 2016 appearance on “The View.” “The people who know me know I’m not a racist.”

WWE Hall of Fame announcer Jim Ross told The Sun that he believes Hogan has paid the price for his mistake.

“The world has an interesting way of forgiving others,” said Ross. “The guy has paid his price. He had a trial. He lost jobs. He had a court case. I don't know what more he needs to do.”

It looks like Hogan’s comeback is just a matter of time. There may yet be another chapter of Hulkamania ready to run wild.

Reach Mike Mooneyham at bymikemooneyham@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMikeMooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.