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Julie Jacobson, Associated Press
Michael "Iron Mike" Whitehead, foreground, walks into the courtroom at the Clark County district court, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012, in Las Vegas. A judge in Las Vegas will decide whether the mixed martial arts fighter once featured on Spike TV's "The Ultimate Fighter" will go to prison for attempted sexual assault of a woman in April 2010 at his home.

LAS VEGAS — A mixed martial arts fighter once featured on Spike TV's "The Ultimate Fighter" was handcuffed and led from a Las Vegas courtroom Thursday to begin serving one to four years in state prison for the attempted sexual assault of a woman almost two years ago.

Michael "Iron Mike" Whitehead's shoulders sagged and he sobbed as Clark County District Court Judge Douglas Herndon imposed the prison sentence for attacking a 32-year-old woman while she slept and groping a 28-year-old woman at his Las Vegas home following a party.

Whitehead, 6-foot-1 and 265 pounds, now lives in Arizona and has a gym in Tucson. He will have to register for life as a sex offender and pay about $2,400 in restitution.

His lawyer, William Terry, declined to comment outside the courtroom.

"My heart's broken that I just saw that happen," said Whitehead's friend, Nicholas Lanza, 50, of Las Vegas. "He's not an animal like they're treating him."

In court, Terry asked the judge for probation and to spare Whitehead from having to register as a sex offender. The lawyer cited what he called "extraordinary circumstances" in the case and Whitehead's work teaching self-defense and martial arts to adults and children.

During his plea for leniency, Terry also referred to a separate drug case pending against Whitehead stemming from the discovery by police of about 40 marijuana plants growing in a bedroom of Whitehead's home when he was arrested in April 2010.

"Sexual assault is a very serious offense," the judge told Whitehead. He said he was troubled that Whitehead never admitted during presentencing interviews with state officials that he committed the sex acts.

"I can't buy complete denial — that nothing happened," Herndon said. "I just can't put you on probation."

Whitehead entered a so-called Alford plea in the case in September, meaning he did not admit guilt but conceded prosecutors could prove the case against him.

Prosecutor Jake Merback made no sentencing recommendation on Thursday.

The plea deal avoided trial on four sex assault, attempted sex assault and lewdness charges that could have gotten Whitehead decades in prison.