Chicago's hosting WWE Payback 2014 has amped up the voltage of the buzz around CM Punk.
The absent star isn't scheduled for the event or expected to be a surprise returnee, but fans and writers alike continue to follow his movements and speculate on his future. Several recent interviews have veered in his direction. One with Punk himself provides the most closure the narrative of his exit has offered so far.
It's hard to read up on WWE without running into an update on Punk.
The obsession lies partly in the uniqueness of the situation. Future Hall of Famers don't often leave the ring in their prime. The fact that Punk has said very little since taking his sabbatical has only added to the mystery, curiosity and unsettled feeling his absence has created.
Fans believed he would show up to the Raw on March 3, which was WWE's first trip to Punk's hometown during his leave. The same discussion arose at WrestleMania time. Now, as the latest pay-per-view brings WWE to Chicago, hope has sprung once more.
He's not wrestling at that show and certainly not appearing on SmackDown in July, despite what WWE.com wrote.
Mike Johnson of PWInsider reported that both Punk and AJ Lee were "listed on the WWE website as talents appearing on the 7/24 SmackDown taping in Corpus Christi, Texas." Before a wave of articles could crash onto the Internet, before speculation could choke Twitter, the listing was gone.
Hours later, Johnson added an update that WWE removed them both from the list of scheduled talent.
It's time to move on. There's no need to look for clues about when he's coming back. His current break appears to actually be a retirement.
Punk spoke with Ernest Wilkins in an interview for Red Eye Chicago and asked him what it was like to be retired. He said the following:
It feels good. It's a lot easier when you hook up with organizations like the Cubs and being friends with some of the team members. It isn't hard to support their charities. Plus I get to do fun stuff like bowl and paint chairs and play whiffle ball with Bill Murray.
CM Punk Confirms Retirement: It's Time To Accept His Absence http://t.co/EZCCSAmQWH— WrestleEnigma.com (@WrestleEnigma) May 29, 2014
This is the closest Punk has come to explaining his status. While pro wrestling retirements are often as firm as soggy bread, the fact that "The Best in the World" didn't clarify that he's only out for a short while or working things out for a return should put the "Is this when he comes back?" stories to rest.
Even so, Punk remains one of the most discussed topics in wrestling talk.
ESPN's Michelle Beadle addressed an incident last December involving herself, Punk and AJ. Jim Ross interviewed Beadle on The Ross Report and she recounted that she called him a non-PG name in jest and AJ later angrily confronted her.
She said the following of her relationship with Punk:
I've also known Phil for a few years at this point and I had, at that time, considered him a friend. We texted on a regular basis, we've had dinner numerous times. You know, It's just one of those things where he's not my friend, whatever. It was what it was. I thought it was a friendship. I guess I was wrong.
Punk came up once again when Goldberg spoke with Donald Wood of Ring Rust Radio.
The former WCW and WWE star didn't work with or have any particular relationship with him. Punk's leaving is just a topic that has dominated the wrestling scene since the end of January.
He said of Punk's exit, "I do not know any of the back story. I do not know CM Punk, but I can empathize and I can completely understand anyone who wouldn't like the dealings that have transgressed throughout the years at the WWE."
Other wrestlers, regardless of their affiliation with Punk, will have to weigh in on this. Punk's greatness and the strangeness of his exit make it a subject that is hard to leave alone.
Punk ranked 56 on the list of "The 100 Most Obsessed-Over People On The Web" in Time Magazine.
Hulk Hogan is ranked 17 and Bret Hart is one spot below Punk despite both men being retired. It seems that obsession follows the wrestler long after he steps away from the ring.