A couple years before Cortez showed up on the shores of Mexico and almost single-handedly conquered the most powerful and ferocious warrior civilization in North America (that's a tale for a different day), the Aztecs were pretty much in the business of beating the holy living snot out of every other tribe in the land, annexing their territory, and leaving behind a gruesome trail of blood, destruction, and eviscerated enemy combatants. Anyone who defied them could look forward to one of two inevitable consequences – they would either be bodyslammed to death on the battlefield, or forcibly sacrificed to the sun god Huitzilopochtli by having their hearts cut out through their abdomens by some crazy blood-thirsty priest. Both options were equally crappy.
The Aztecs were tough, hardcore ball-busters whose penchant for violence and righteous unrelenting groin-kicking didn't leave much to the imagination, but in the late fifteenth century there was one badass warrior who dared to defy their ever-expanding empire of blood – Chief Tlahuicole of the Tlaxcalan tribe. Tlahuicole (whose name is occasionally spelled Tlalhuicole by people who are big fans of putting random consonants in weird places) was a pretty insane face-smashing nutcracker in his own right, and he wasn't just going to roll over and expose his soft underbelly to the sacrificial pointiness without at least taking some motherfuckers along for the ride. Tasked with leading his warriors against the aggression of the unstoppable Aztec Empire, Tlahuicole was determined to protect his peoples' way of life and avoid having his brave warriors ritualistically disemboweled by jerkface holy men.
Aztec sacrifices to Huitzilopochtli.
I love how the heart is flying off into the atmosphere here,
kind of like it was shot out of a potato cannon or something.
The war between the Aztecs and the Tlaxcans lasted for twenty long days, as Tlahuicole held out against all odds in a brutal struggle for survival. He made quite a name for himself as a head-splitting asskicker, fighting with a pair of massive tomahawks so heavy that many men could not even lift them, and even as the Tlaxcan numbers began to dwindle, many Aztec warriors were so awed by Tlahuicole's physical powers of face-crushing that they refused to engage him in single combat. The Tlaxcan hero struck fear in the hearts of his enemies, cleaving through hordes of terrified warriors, but eventually, after all of his men were killed or mortally wounded, the mighty chieftain was overpowered by superior numbers and captured.
Tlahuicole was bound in chains and dragged before the Aztec Emperor Montezuma. Montezuma, quite the badass in his own right (and an appreciator of all things badassery-related), had heard rumors of this unstoppable tomahawk-hucking warrior who had inflicted so much carnage on the battlefield, and decided to spare this brave soldier's life. Montezuma offered Tlahuicole his freedom, treasure, women, and a safe passage home.
To everyone's surprise, Tlahuicole refused. He knew that it was Aztec custom to sacrifice prisoners of war to the sun god, and for the disgrace of losing the battle and allowing himself to be captured, the Tlaxcan's sense of honor demanded that he suffer the appropriate consequences.
Montezuma obviously thought this was completely fucking insane, so instead of sacrificing Tlahuicole, he co-opted his skills into the Aztec army, ordering this man to serve as a war-chief in an already-ongoing struggle against a rival tribe known as the Tarascans. Tlahuicole, being a dutiful soldier, obeyed the order and assumed command of a large contingent of Aztec warriors on the battlefield.
Well, Tlahuicole was pretty much awesome, and he of course pummeled the fail out of the Tarascans in combat, defeating them out of hand and sending their warriors running back home to their mommas with their entrails hanging out all willy-nilly. Tlahuicole's divisions returned to Tenochtitlan in triumph, bearing large amounts of wealth, slaves, and human sacrifices. Montezuma was so pumped up that he offered to make Tlahuicole an official member of the Aztec nobility, but the Tlaxcan vehemently refused, saying that by becoming an Aztec citizen he would be betraying his people. He once again turned down an opportunity for freedom, and begged Montezuma to allow him to die and end his miserable life of suffering and dishonor.
Montezuma pretty much figured that there was nothing he could do to change this crazy war-mongering psycho's mind, so he offered Tlahuicole the opportunity to die the sort of badass warrior's death that would have made Odin Himself weep a single tear. Rather than sacrifice Tlahuicole at the Temple of Huitzilopochtli, Montezuma chained the warrior-chieftain to the Stone of Combat, stripped him of his armor, gave him an ordinary obsidian-studded war club, and pitted him against an endless onslaught of the greatest warriors of the Aztec Empire.
(If it helps you to understand Tlahuicole's motivation for wishing for death before dishonor, you can think of this like the end of Half-Life, where the G-Man gives you the opportunity to either join him or fight a battle that you have no chance of winning. Tlahuicole chose the latter as a way of telling his captors to get fucked. Oh, um... spoiler alert, I guess)
Tlahuicole, surrounded by an endless horde of elite Aztec Jaguar and Eagle Knights.
As an interesting/morbid side note, the Stone of Combat had grooves cut into it to drain the blood away from the combat zone.
According to Aztec culture, this Trial of Sacrificial Combat was a way for captured soldiers to earn their freedom by displaying their worth as warriors. Men would be chained to the stone, and be set upon by a large group of seven powerful enemies. If the prisoner killed or wounded all of his assailants and survived the combat, he was set free. Well, obviously Tlahuicole wasn't going to take the easy way out – in his mind, he had failed, and wasn't going to be satisfied until he had died a warrior's death, covered in the blood of his enemies, and going out in a pretty badass one-man blaze of glory. This battle was to the death.
Surrounded by hardcore warriors wailing on him from every direction, Tlahuicole stood his ground like the neck-ripping shit-kicker that he was. Over the course of nearly an hour of non-stop hand-to-hand horde mode combat, Tlahuicole fought his epic last stand, killing eight of the Aztec Empire's most powerful and skilled Jaguar Knights and wounding over twenty more. He finally fell to his knees, fighting like a madman, before succumbing to a ridiculous number of seriously gnarly mortal wounds. As he lay there dying a painful death, an Aztec priest approached, exalted the name of this brave warrior, and ritualistically sacrificed him on the spot.
Gonio, J. The Ancient Cities of the New World. Harper, 1887.
Spence, Lewis. Myths of Mexico and Peru. Kessinger, 2003.
Sundel, Albert. A History of the Aztecs and the Mayas and Their Conquest. Collier, 1967.