As 'Big Hungry' hoisted Punk onto his shoulders (avoiding a botch, thankfully) for the Shell Shock the referee delivered a textbook Attitude Era low blow. This allowed 'The Second City Saint' to roll the big man up, grabbing a handful of trunks along the way, and get a fast three count for the tainted victory.
Yep. WWE went for a screw job finish. Interference by Brock Lesnar would have set up a match between he and Ryback. Having a mid-carder cost him the match would have done the same, plus given someone lower down the pecking order a boost by associating them with Punk and setting them up for a clash with the promotion's hottest star.
Going with a corrupt referee was a good choice though. It plays into the quickly forgotten angle that occurred after Night of Champions, when CM Punk complained about sub-par officiating. That the same official was chosen to aid Punk makes it clear that the whole thing was, as Jim Ross would say, a setup all along.
The man who would be champ
It was the right finish. Ryback lost but not convincingly. It was a great way to protect him. Meanwhile Punk looks like the conniving, unscrupulous and unfair heel he's meant to be. He cheated to win because he knew he couldn't defeat the babyface fairly.
The finish could indicate that Paul Heyman has a degree of influence on WWE's booking. He's written dodgy referees in the past (most notably Bill Alfonso). It feels like the sort of suggestion he'd make. If the former ECW chief is involved in the writing process then that's good news for fans.
But what's next for Ryback? More precisely, who's next? A rematch with CM Punk seems unlikely. The two men clashed either as an experiment to see how over Ryback is or because John Cena is injured. Ryback will likely confront 'The Voice of the Voiceless' on RAW but a return performance seems unlikely at this time. A resumption of hostilities with John Cena is the next probable step for the champ.
Having proved himself in a big match environment Ryback could head into a rivalry with Big Show, the new holder of the World Heavyweight championship. A short reign for 'The World's Largest Athlete' seems likely and beating him would reinforce 'back's standing as a powerful beast. That would then test Ryback out as a world champion in a low pressure fashion.
Perhaps he could scale back his title ambitions and concentrate on Antonio Cesaro's United States gold. 'The Swiss Superman' could work a decent-length non-title match with Ryback and then lose a rematch. Cesaro has helped make the US strap mean something since winning it. Ryback could enhance it further.
The trouble there is that targeting a mid-card belt could make Ryback seem weak or indecisive. It may look as though he's decided to go for second (or fourth) best because he can't succeed at the highest level. If he's going to go after a champion other than Punk then Big Show seems a much better choice.
Alternatively Ryback could target one of the many men currently treading water. Wade Barrett, The Miz, or Alberto Del Rio would all be fresh challenges for the man from Sin City. Any of them could work an entertaining month-long programme. Ryback could even tangle with a tag team. The Prime Time Players or the Rhodes Scholars could mock him for losing to Punk, inciting a rivalry.
The inevitable first loss has arrived far earlier than most people expected and it has taken away one of the Ryback's most significant selling points. WWE will need to be very careful what they do with him next. He may have been protected in defeat, but if it happens once too often fans are going to lose interest.