C.M. Punk, arguably WWE’s top star since his epic “pipe bomb” promo captivated a Monday Raw audience 16 months ago, faces one of his biggest challenges to date at tonight’s Hell in a Cell pay-per-view.

Punk, who has successfully carried the WWE heavyweight title for nearly a year, is meeting a performer whose momentum has reached Goldberg-like levels.

But unlike Bill Goldberg, whose push in WCW evolved organically, Ryback’s rise to the top has been carefully orchestrated by WWE.

The 6-3, 290-pounder fits in perfectly with the big man image WWE owner Vince McMahon likes in his main-event talent. Possessing the physical tools that give him the appearance of a bona fide superstar, Ryback is an impressive-looking force of nature who makes fans take notice.

McMahon, always searching for that elusive “it” factor, is hoping that the monstrous grappler will be a money-making machine for his company. That’s why tonight’s bout looms large. A loss in Ryback’s first high-profile match could prove damaging for a potential superstar who has yet to score a signature win.

Hell in a Cell matches are known for producing clean finishes and clear-cut winners. But this particular bout could prove to be an exception since a loss would be damaging to either performer.

WWE may need to borrow a page out of Pat Patterson’s book of creative finishes in order to salvage a result that will keep both Ryback and Punk strong. That sort of booking usually involves outside interference, and considering the bout will be held inside a steel cage, that could be a daunting task.

WWE could opt to utilize one of Brock Lesnar’s limited dates and involve him in the finish, building heat for a potential clash with Ryback that, if done properly, could be a box-office bonanza.

“There are a variety of ways they could do it. I would put the guy over clean that you’re pushing,” veteran talent agent and promoter Bill Behrens said Wednesday on Pat McNeill’s PWTorch Livecast. “I would find a way to make that guy.”

If audience reaction is any indication, McMahon and WWE just might want to pull the trigger on Ryback.

Anything approaching the Goldberg phenomenon of 15 years ago would be a major coup for the company.

Like Goldberg, whose catch phrase “Who’s Next?” caught on like wildfire, the shaven-headed Ryback’s “Feed Me” catchphrase has drawn its own measure of notoriety.

And, like Goldberg, Ryback’s persona is punctuated by intensity, brute force and a no-nonsense demeanor.

There are major questions, however, heading into tonight’s showdown between Ryback and Punk.

The originally planned main event pitted Punk against John Cena, but Cena’s elbow surgery several weeks ago prompted WWE officials to look for a replacement.

With Ryback mowing down opposition without a blemish on his record, much like Goldberg’s initial run in WCW, he was the obvious choice.

Cena’s setback may ultimately prove to be a blessing in disguise for Ryback — and WWE.

But is Ryback ready for prime time?

Is he the second coming of Goldberg, an unstoppable force and immovable object, or will he be the latest in a long line of overly muscled, one-dimensional performers who looked impressive until the bell sounded.

While those questions remain to be answered, the fact is that Ryback is the hottest new star WWE has created in a very long time.

Ryback, whose real name is Ryan Reeves, isn’t exactly a newcomer to the business. Although his on-air push is relatively new, the Las Vegas native has been around the wrestling block.

The 30-year-old former high school baseball star was one of eight finalists on WWE’s Tough Enough 4 in 2004 and placed third in fan voting behind eventual winner Daniel Puder and Mike Mizanin (The Miz).

Reeves impressed officials enough for them to sign him to a developmental contract the following year. He worked in Deep South Wrestling (where he was briefly suspended in 2006 for failing a drug test), Florida Championship Wrestling and Ohio Valley Wrestling for most of the next five years.

It was in 2008 while working in FCW that the lifelong wrestling fan was given the name Ryback — a combination of his first name (Ryan) and his nickname (Silverback) due to his perceived physical resemblance to a gorilla.

He participated in the first season of NXT in early 2010 under the ring name Skip Sheffield. Several months into the run, however, he broke his ankle and underwent extensive surgery.

He didn’t return to WWE TV until this April, but this time with his old ring name of Ryback, a new look and ring attire, and a win streak that has extended until now.

WWE has done a good job of strategically positioning and protecting Ryback thus far, keeping his matches short, feeding him a series of jobbers in squashes, and taking every precaution not to over-expose him in the ring.

It’s still unknown whether Ryback, nicknamed “Big Hungry,” will be able to hold his own at the top and live up to the company’s lofty expectations. To earn the respect of the locker room, along with the all-important support from McMahon, Ryback needs to deliver in a big way tonight against Punk.

Much of Ryback’s success will depend largely on Punk’s performance. The self-proclaimed “Best in the World” will be tested in bringing out the best in his powerful but rough-around-the-edges opponent.

Behrens, who first met Ryback in the Deep South promotion, firmly believes WWE may have a superstar in the making.

“When I was under my last contract with WWE, I worked in Deep South Wrestling for half a minute before that got really bad,” said Behrens. “During that time, though, I worked with a young man named Ryan Reeves who did one of the best promos I ever taped.”

The promo, said Behrens, involved Reeves going through his musculature and explaining how everything was connected and how brilliant it was.

“Then at one point, he turned to the camera and goes, ‘I know it’s complicated. It’s science.’ Literally from that moment I liked him because he got it. He understood that he was trying to create a character.”

Behrens points out that another current WWE star was in the same position as Ryback less than two years ago, and he had been in the system for a shorter time than Ryback. This particular worker forced the issue, and WWE pulled the trigger on him, with glowing results. That wrestler was C.M. Punk (Phil Brooks).

“People forget that Ryback is a guy who’s been around the WWE system since 2005. He’s not a newcomer. He’s been around a long time. And I think you can trust that guy because C.M. Punk was in the system a much shorter period of time. In fact one executive was told to fire him twice before he got his spot.

“Punk got to his spot because he did the right thing at the right time and it worked. Good for Phil. Ryback is the right guy at the right time, and you have to build that next star. If you don’t build the next star, then the guy you built has nothing to do.”

One person who’s not entirely sold yet on Ryback’s mega-push is Punk himself.

The reigning WWE champ says he’s not sure if Ryback is ready for his main-event push, but adds that he doesn’t think anyone is ready until going through a main-event trial.

“I don’t think anybody — when they first arrive in any kind of main-event scene — is ready,” Punk told radio personality Sam Roberts in an interview during last weekend’s Ringside Fest event. “It’s the people who survive the trial by fire, and they make it out the other end. I don’t think I was ready the first time it happened to me. It’s just what you make of it.”

Punk added that “it’s the experience and going through the experience that makes you ready.”

“So, we’ll see what happens,” he said.

Others, however, believe that WWE has a rare opportunity to create a hot commodity in Ryback.

Former WWE champ Chris Jericho said on the Busted Open satellite radio show last week that WWE should pull the trigger with Ryback and have him go over Punk.

“I don’t know anything and I don’t work for the WWE. I haven’t talked to Vince (McMahon) in about a month,” Jericho said. “But, this is the chance to make a new star instantly... This is not a guy that we see that builds his way to the top and fans get behind him slowly but surely. You want to pick a new guy? Have him beat C.M. Punk this week.”

Punk backers, however, point to his 11-month title reign and argue that a loss would be damaging with a likely rematch with Cena and a high-profile Royal Rumble bout with The Rock coming down the pike.

In this case the title, says Jericho, has to take a back seat to the possible creation of a new superstar.

“Who (cares) about Punk’s title reign? It means nothing ... Here is a chance to take a guy who people are getting behind. If he beats Punk at Hell in A Cell and after three hundred and thirty seven days or whatever and Punk is finally beaten, people are going to start to take notice of this guy.”

Jericho, whose recent negotiations with WWE have stalled, went so far as to speculate about a possible upset at next year’s Wrestlemania and the enormous ramifications it could have.

“What if Ryback beats Undertaker at Wrestlemania? You have a new star for the next 10 years to headline pay-per views and main events.”

That, of course, may be putting the cart before the horse, but stranger things have happened in the world of pro wrestling.

The obvious comparisons between Ryback and Goldberg have prompted some fans to dub him “Ryberg.”

Ryback boasted in a recent interview in WWE Magazine that he was a better wrestler and athlete than Goldberg ever was.

“I firmly believe that I’m much better than he was in the ring. He was great, and I was a fan of his when I was younger. But, I feel I’m a better athlete and wrestler than Goldberg ever was, and people are going to see that over time.”

Goldberg, who played for the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons during the ‘90s, responded on Twitter: “Better athlete? Come on, dude, wake up.”

During the WWE Magazine interview, Ryback said comparisons between the two don’t bother him, but that “people are misinformed.”

“People see a big guy with a shaved head who’s intense, and they draw those comparisons. I will say this: Goldberg did this for the money. He was never a fan of wrestling. I do this because I have a passion for it, and that’s the biggest difference between Goldberg and me. I’m not here to make five million dollars and then walk away. I’m here for life.”

Jericho said that while Ryback reminded him of Goldberg, he was no copy of Goldberg.

“It’s like saying Jericho is a copy of Shawn Michaels. There are elements and lots of similarities, but it’s a different guy and nobody has seen a guy like this in a long, long time. So, I think if they do pull the trigger that it will work huge and it will create a superstar instantly.”

Furthermore, says Jericho, the two come from two different periods of wrestling.

“Most of the fans in this day and age have no idea who Goldberg is and don’t care. We do, but in the year 2012 Goldberg was over 10 years ago. How did Goldberg get over? By beating everybody. There was no loss for Goldberg. As soon as he did lose, that’s when things started going downhill for him.”

“He (Ryback) already has credibility,” said Behrens. “Goldberg made money. It was a tremendous run that an awful lot of people took pride in, and it built a big star. I think they need to do that with Ryback. Everybody that can draw money now is really old. You can’t get that much more out of Taker, you can’t get that much more out of Kane’s knees. There’s only so much you can get out of those guys. The younger guys are trying to step up, but there aren’t that many who are new and impressive and can take the place of the monsters.”

Goldberg said he was “flattered” that fans have chanted his name during Ryback’s matches and took no offense being compared to a current heavyweight contender.

With Ryback’s star on the rise, though, look for those “Goldberg” taunts to be replaced by “Feed Me More” chants reverberating throughout the WWE Universe.

— John Cena recently was honored by Make-A-Wish at its “Evening of Excellence” awards ceremony” for being the only celebrity to reach the record-breaking milestone of fulfilling 300 wishes.

Cena became the first recipient of the 300th Wish Award at the annual Make-A-Wish awards ceremony in Glendale, Ariz. His award was presented by wish mom Judith Harrison, whose late son Justin was the second wish child Cena ever met, before an audience of hundreds of Make-A Wish national and chapter staff, volunteer leaders and wish families.

“WWE superstar John Cena is a champion in the ring and a champion for Make-A-Wish and wish kids across the world,” said David A. Williams, president and chief executive officer of Make-A-Wish America. “Even in the face of a hectic travel schedule, the physical demands of his job and countless requests for his time, John’s commitment to creating life-changing wish experiences for each and every wish kid requesting to meet him has never wavered. He is an amazing wish granter and a great friend of Make-A-Wish.”

“I can think of no greater honor than someone who can have any wish they want in the world, yet they choose to spend their time with me,” said Cena. “I will continue to grant wishes as long as there are children who request me. I am proud to be a part of WWE’s long-standing alliance with Make-A-Wish.”

Cena set a Make-A-Wish record this June by granting his 300th wish to Jonathan Littman, 7, an honor that was also celebrated on ABC’s Good Morning America.

Cena has been personally granting wishes for more than eight years, and during the course of WWE’s 25-year alliance with Make-A-Wish, the company and its performers have granted more than 4,000 wishes.

— The Daytona Beach Police Department has officially ruled longtime Florida star Mike Graham’s death as a suicide.

The 61-year-old, whose real name was Edward Michael Gossett, was found Oct. 18 on his bed with a single gunshot wound to his head and a small-caliber pistol beside him. An autopsy has been performed, but results will not be made available for two weeks.

Graham was in Daytona Beach for the 20th annual Biketobertest.

The incident report quoted Graham’s wife, Diane Marie Hamilton, as saying that Graham “had threatened to commit suicide frequently ever since (his) son committed suicide two years prior during Biketoberfest.”

Graham’s son, Steven Edward Gossett, died in Daytona Beach on Dec. 15, 2010. He was 37.

Graham’s father, legendary Florida wrestling star and promoter Eddie Graham, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1985.

— I’ll be at JD’s Sports Bar (formerly George’s Sports Bar), 1300 Savannah Highway, from 7-8:30 p.m. today signing copies of “Heroes and Icons.” Covering the 1930s through the present day, the latest installment in the acclaimed Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame series examines what makes a great hero, along with bios and photos of wrestling’s greatest “good guys.”

I was privileged to collaborate with the veteran writing team of Greg Oliver and Steve Johnson on the 550-page opus. A book five years in the making, it’s a must for serious fans of pro wrestling history. I’ll also be signing copies of the 2002 New York Times best-seller “Sex, Lies and Headlocks.” Books will be available for purchase.

JD’s will air WWE’s Hell in a Cell pay-per-view at 8 p.m. Cover charge is $7.

— Lowcountry wrestling fans will have something to look forward to in the waning months of 2012.

Old School Championship Wrestling, the area’s top independent promotion, will present its final card of the year with an event on Nov. 11 at the Hanahan Rec Center.

Former WWE star Gangrel will make his first OSCW appearance since 2009 and will team with Dr. Creo to meet Michael Frehley and Steven Walters in a match to determine the No. 1 contender for the OSCW tag title. Other top bouts include John Skyler vs. Billy Brash; Asylum vs. Hexxon in a hardcore match; and a four-corner IC title match with Kevin Phoenix, Jon Malus, Tank Lewis and Jesse Windham.

WWE is bringing its juggernaut into town on Dec. 4 at the North Charleston Coliseum for a special Smackdown TV taping.

Reach Mike Mooneyham at 843-937-5517 or follow him on Twitter at @ByMikeMooneyham and on Facebook.