The fact that WWE Champion CM Punk beat Ryback at Hell in a Cell to retain the WWE Championship wasn't all that surprising, but the manner in which he did it certainly was. Even so, the WWE did what it had to in terms of making both men look strong.
Although some thought that the WWE might capitalize on Ryback's momentum and give him the belt, the prevailing notion was that Punk would win due to some kind of interference. Brock Lesnar was the obvious name because of his relationship with Paul Heyman and the fact that a big pay-per-view in Survivor Series is on the horizon, but he didn't play a role.
Instead, it was referee Brad Maddox who shocked the WWE Universe by preventing Ryback from hitting Punk with his finisher. Maddox nailed Ryback with a low blow and helped Punk pin Ryback's shoulders to the mat for the three-count. Perhaps it wasn't the ideal result that fans were looking for, but the WWE essentially booked its way out of a straight jacket.
Because John Cena was unavailable to face Punk due to his elbow injury, the WWE had no choice but to put Ryback in his spot, as his fan support dictated it. Punk needed to retain the title, though, as he is the likely opponent for The Rock at Royal Rumble, while Ryback had an undefeated streak that I'm sure the company wanted to maintain.
Ryback technically lost the match, but he has a pretty good excuse. No man could possibly overcome a crooked referee, and Ryback is no exception. The WWE hasn't actually been promoting his undefeated streak much lately, and I believe that was a calculated maneuver. Rather than attaching Ryback to a streak like WCW did with Goldberg, the WWE wants the fans to think of Ryback as a dominant force who doesn't need a streak.
With that said, I wouldn't put it past the WWE doing an angle where Vince McMahon appears on RAW and rules it a no contest. That would preserve Ryback's streak for the time being, but it would also lead to a rematch either on RAW or at Survivor Series in all likelihood, so Ryback is going to have to lose if the plan is for Punk to retain.
Some may try to argue that the manner in which Punk won makes him look weak, but I disagree wholeheartedly. With this win, Punk is likely to hold the WWE Championship for over a year and there isn't anything that can take away the credibility Punk has gained over the life of his title reign. In fact, having the referee help him is only going to further his heel persona.
It will be extremely interesting to see how this feud is handled moving forward. It was meant to be Punk vs. Cena all along, but the WWE had to call an audible. Conventional wisdom would seem to state that Ryback is entitled to a rematch, but with Vickie Guerrero temporarily in charge of RAW, all bets are off.
I have to believe that Vickie and Paul Heyman are working together behind the scenes. They have had some interactions over the past few weeks and although their relationship is somewhat contentious, they may be working in lockstep to gain creative control over the WWE.
After Maddox blew the call in the match between Punk and Cena several week ago, former RAW general manager A.J. Lee berated him. That situation hasn't been addressed since, but perhaps Vickie reminded him of that and gave him a chance to stick it to her and the WWE as a whole.
Also, Dolph Ziggler seems poised to feud with Punk's other nemesis in Cena, so Ziggler, Vickie, Punk, Heyman and Maddox all have to be intertwined in some way. I have been calling for a potential heel stable led by Heyman and Punk for quite some time, and it may finally be coming to fruition with both Vickie and Ziggler involved, as well as Lesnar eventually.
The WWE Championship picture is still muddled, though, and that is something that has to be sorted out. A triple-threat match between Punk, Ryback and Cena at Survivor Series is a possibility, but the WWE would probably rather make it a one-on-one situation.
There are a number of different directions that the WWE could go in, but since both Ryback and Cena are entitled to a title match, I would pit them against each other in a No. 1 contender's match on RAW. In order to protect Ryback and prevent Cena from wrestling—in the event that he hasn't actually been cleared, though—I would orchestrate a pre-match attack of Ryback.
Since Lesnar didn't return like I expected at Hell in a Cell, it wouldn't be a bad idea to bring him back on RAW. That way he would still be involved in the angle, but it would be much more surprising than it would have had he interfered at Hell in a Cell. Also, that would give Cena a clear path to the title match at Survivor Series while setting up a possible five-on-five match between teams captained by Lesnar and Ryback, respectively.
The conclusion to Hell in a Cell was shocking and it isn't easy to make sense of it, but both Punk and Ryback have been sufficiently protected and there is a great deal of buzz heading into RAW.