"People are all human and they make mistakes, so it's about forgiving people and learning and growing," Hogan tells PEOPLE
Credit: S Meddle/ITV/REX/Shutterstock

When Hulk Hogan walked out to a chorus of cheers on WWE’s Monday Night Raw on January 7, it was something that, just a few years ago, might have seemed far from a possibility. The moment, Hogan tells PEOPLE, was “unbelievable.”

Hogan’s segment on the show — which honored legendary wrestling announcer “Mean” Gene Okerlund, who died on January 2 — marked his first appearance on the program since March 2015, after a leaked audio recording from a 2006 sex tape revealed he had used the “n-word” multiple times and referred to himself as a “racist” while discussing his daughter’s dating life.

After the audio went public, the WWE — the company where Hogan became a household name in the 1980s — removed him from the Hall of Fame, its promotional materials and products.

In the years that followed, Hogan made numerous showings to apologize, most notably on The View and during his Hall of Fame induction speech at the Boys & Girls Club in May 2018.

That time has been one of reflection, he tells PEOPLE exclusively. “People are all human and they make mistakes, so it’s about forgiving people and learning and growing,” Hogan — whose real name is Terry Bollea — says.

“I’m definitely not in the same place I was 12 or 13 years ago, you know, when I said such stupid words, what came out of my head. That’s not who I am.”

The WWE noted these public apologies, and Hogan’s volunteer work, in their statement declaring their decision to reinstate him into the Hall of Fame after a three-year hiatus in July 2018.

Terry Bollea Hulk Hogan
Hogan during his lawsuit in 2016
| Credit: Scott Keeler/The Tampa Bay Times/AP

While Hogan was absent from WWE programming during his split with the company, he was the subject of the 2017 Netflix film, Nobody Speak, which focused on his high-profile lawsuit against Gawker, the online news outlet that published the sex tape without his permission. The years-long suit ended with Hogan being awarded a multimillion-dollar settlement in 2016, and Gawker and its affiliated websites were later sold off when the company declared bankruptcy.

He also participated in two separate documentaries — ESPN’s Nature Boy, a November 2017 look at the career of Ric Flair; and HBO’s April 2018 film, André the Giant, which focused on late wrestler André René Roussimoff. Both featured new interviews with Hogan, along with archival footage of his classic bouts with the two fighters.

During the suspension, Hogan also remained active on social media and still regularly posts to his millions of followers on Instagram. And locals near his home in Florida may have spotted the former wrestler at Hogan’s Beach Shop, his chain of beachwear stores in Orlando and Clearwater Beach, where he frequently makes appearances.

“I’ve been down here enjoying the beach,” Hogan tells PEOPLE of his time away from the ring, “but staying real busy.”

Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan
| Credit: Arnaldo Magnani/Getty Images

While a restaurant, Hogan’s Hangout, is also in the works for the coming year, one thing that isn’t on his radar is a return to active wrestling.

“I’m too old to wrestle. I embarrassed myself enough out there by moving too slow, so I don’t want to get back in there again,” he admits. “I don’t think I could. I could probably wrestle somebody like John Cena or Vince McMahon, but as soon as I’d be done they’d be taking me straight to the hospital to fix something … the body’s too worn out for that.”

When Hogan and the WWE made amends with his reinstatement last year, there were more than a few of the company’s employees who called into question whether the embattled superstar was deserving of it.

The New Day — a popular group made up of black wrestlers Big E, Kofi Kingston, and Xavier Woods — released a joint statement asserting they had no plans to associate with Hogan until he made a “genuine effort to change,” even if they had “no argument” against his place in the Hall of Fame.

A few notable wrestlers of color did publicly express their support of Hogan, including Booker T. Huffman, one of the most prominent black performers in wrestling history.

“The only thing Hogan can do is apologize and atone for it and we move forward,” Booker T. told CBS Sports in July 2018.

Shortly after his reinstatement, Hogan was invited to host the company’s November pay-per-view event in Saudi Arabia. The show, Crown Jewel, would be Hogan’s first official taste of the WWE spotlight in years.

Then, just a few weeks later, he received the call that his longtime friend had died.

“It felt like my Adam’s apple went backward or something, I couldn’t catch my breath,” Hogan says of finding out of Okerlund’s death. “I guess my wife thought I was having a heart attack. It hit me so hard cause I just talked to him a couple weeks before about getting together the weekend when I came back from New Years.”

WWE chairman Vince McMahon was eventually able to sway him to appear on Raw, Hogan says, to help lead a tribute to the late announcer.

“The reception from the crowd was unbelievable,” he recalls of the appearance. “All of the talent in the back were really, really cool and nice. Everybody expressed their sympathy.”

Hogan at the HBO World Premiere of ‘Andre The Giant’

The deaths of close friends over the past decade — such as Okerlund, Randy Savage and ‘“Rowdy” Roddy Piper — has helped to bring things into perspective for Hogan, who turns 66 this year.

“You get to a certain place in life where you have … I don’t know what you’d call it … a come-to-Jesus moment, where you finally get it, what this is all about,” he says. “You realize how you treat people, and that helping and serving people are more important than anything that you could possibly be doing.”

Working with nonprofits, such as 50 Legs and March of Dimes, is what has given Hogan a sense of fulfillment in these golden years.

“For me and my career and the whole Hulkamania thing, it really wasn’t the heartbeat of why I was here,” he explains. “I’m here to help people and serve people.”

Despite the reinstatement into the Hall of Fame and cheers from the Raw crowd, it remains unclear if Hogan has been absolved by the majority of his peers and fans. Yet, the experience has changed him, he says, and has sculpted him into someone more willing to forgive — regardless if he is forgiven.

“People learn from their mistakes, and people generally have a good heart,” Hogan tells PEOPLE with humility in his voice. “There’s a lot of good people in this world. You’ve gotta learn to forgive, and move forward.”